For a long time, employers have lived by the rule that the only way to measure worker productivity was through physical proximity. Noses were slightly turned up at the request of remote working, and working-from-home was just a pseudonym for pulling a sickie and catching up on missed TV. The pandemic has since thrust us collectively into a world where many employers have had no choice but to trust that their staff are working regardless of their location. But while skeptics might have predicted a downturn in productivity, we’ve actually seen it increase - so why then are we still seeing the topic debated?
A brief history of the office
To unpick the prevalence of in-person office work, it’s first necessary to go back to the 17th century, with the rise of early corporate hubs. Lawyers, civil servants and other professionals began to work from offices across Europe in Amsterdam, London and Paris, which led to the workplace and home becoming increasingly distinct; the office was associated with productivity, while the home with relaxation. But still not everyone followed suit - it wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that the traditional office we’ve come to know today was firmly established. And as manual and factory jobs became fewer and further between in the Global North, the office became the new working hub.
The 1950s, particularly in the US, was a real turning point for the history of work. It was this decade that saw women and minority employment surge, as the Second World War changed global demographics forever. Inspired by the factory floor layouts that dominated much of the earlier decades, offices were set out in large, divided spaces, with just a small desk area allocated per each employee. Natural light and good interior design were rarely prioritised for your average worker, while Executives and CEOs enjoyed corner offices with plenty of amenities.
But despite grand plans for productivity, the 20th century was described as a vapid wasteland by some contemporaries. Art Professor, Robert Propst, said upon his entrance to the workplace in the 1960s; “It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and faired effort.”
The advent of Wall Street saw the birth of the 9 to 5 in the 1980s, along with a toxic productivity culture where work was prioritised above all else - but a decade later people began to question the long-term impact of this on mental health and wellbeing. Employees pushed back against the need to be in the same uninspiring space all day, every day - and as the new millennium rolled around, the office cubicle lost its luster, with workspaces taking on a more open-plan approach aimed to maximise collaboration and productivity, and some companies even offering telecommuting for the first time.
The rise of proximity bias (and why it’s a bad thing)
It’s not surprising that a century of office work has leaned us in favour of working in physical proximity to others - some research has even shown we tend to prefer people who we see more often than those we see less of. But as demand for remote and hybrid models rises, managers should be making a conscious effort to break this pattern.
For one, despite what employers for the last hundred or so years have believed, proximity and productivity are not mutually exclusive, and nothing has proven this more than the COVID-19 pandemic. Given a multitude of factors working against employees during 2020-21, from navigating new technologies like Zoom and Slack, to facing increased stresses brought on by lockdowns and restrictions, it might have been reasonable to assume that work would be put on the backburner - however, that was not the case. Firms largely reported that their staff’s output was increasing through remote working - a 2021 survey by CIPD found that 33% of employers recognised this trend, while 38% saw no change in productivity, for better or worse. Keeping an eye on employees, it seems, is no longer necessary to ensure they’re working.
How to leverage productivity with hybrid working
We aren’t arguing with the benefits of the physical office - interacting in-person is still vital for collaboration, communication, and creating a healthy company culture. Hybrid working provides the best of both - but proximity bias is still a very real problem. So how can employers ensure that they retain this increase in productivity due to the pandemic, while also combatting our natural predisposition to the office?
Create equal hybrid policies across all company levels
A hybrid model can take many forms, but all should ensure equal opportunities for staff. Certain companies, like Asana, have pledged to follow a synchronised hybrid model, whereby all staff take the same split of remote and office-based working to allow everyone to equally benefit from in-person collaboration. Access to technology should also be another priority when combatting proximity bias, especially as those from a lower socio-economic background might not be able to afford the best quality gear to set them up outside the HQ.
Make communication more intentional
Working relationships are often built around water coolers or in break rooms, something a distributed workforce may struggle to replicate without guidance. Managers and business leaders should be more intentional in creating random social interactions between colleagues - this could be done using tech like Slack, which allows you to have quick, audio-only ‘huddles’ with staff members instead of just video calling; or through regular out-of-work events that promote collaboration, like quizzes.
Give staff the choice
The most important decider when it comes to productivity is choice - a study by Raj Choudhury, Harvard scholar and leader in the field of working-from-anywhere, found there to be a 4.4% increase in output for workers surveyed at the US Patent and Trademark Office when they were allowed to choose where they worked. So while it might be a little unnatural for managers and employers to grapple with not seeing their employees in-person, these worries definitely don’t translate into a real negative effect on company productivity.
Overall, while proximity bias has come to be a learned behaviour over the past hundred or so years, it hasn’t always been that way - and won’t continue to be in a post-pandemic world. As long as hybrid policies are set out equally and intentionally, staff productivity will only continue to thrive as it already has done throughout 2020 and 2021.