The optimal place for work is your office and not home

Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Summary

Some tasks are indivisible and intelligent thinking is a social process as neuroscience studies reveal

Can employees continue to work from home as they did during the covid lockdowns, or should they all come back to office for work as it was before the pandemic? This is a raging debate all around the world. According to a Gallup research study, after the pandemic, only 9% of employees want to work from an office on all days, while 32% of them want to work only from their homes, and 59% of surveyed employees prefer a hybrid work schedule. But there is no clarity on how many days a week an employee should come to office in a hybrid-work format.

Amid all this ambiguity, the bigger issue is that employees and their managers are poles apart in evaluating the productivity of employees working from home. According to a study done by Microsoft among 20,000 employees across 11 countries, a vast majority of respondents, 87% of them, reported themselves productive at work. But what is surprising was that only 12% of team leaders said they had full confidence that their team was productive while working from home. Microsoft labelled this disconnect a case of “productivity paranoia".

At the core of all these debates around where one should work from is a crucial question: Is work a divisible concept? If it is neatly divisible such that each part can be taken care of by an individual, then work-from-anywhere should be an ideal option. On the other hand, if work is truly a collaborative process, then working together as a team in one location is ideal.

As part of adopting a scientific approach to the concept of work, it was F.W. Taylor who first introduced the concept of work as a divisible process. As work was divided into discrete specific activities along assembly lines in a factory, levels of specialization and productivity improved. But this approach to work also had a huge downside. The individual worker felt like just another cog in a large impersonal wheel. Employees were unable to see the larger goal of their work—they only saw themselves as bricklayers, so to speak, and not as builders of a cathedral. Luckily, towards the second half of the 20th century , Japanese companies came up with workplace rituals to create a far more holistic sense of camaraderie at the workplace and atone for the sins of assembly lines.

Is work in the knowledge economy divisible and should it follow the assembly line-based processes of the industrial era? The book The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Walk Alone by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach reminds us of some stark realities about the knowledge economy. The authors remind us that intelligence does not reside in any one individual’s brain, but in the collective mind of a society. So, to make positive contributions, individuals should depend more on their ability to work with others than on their own individual mental horsepower.

Until recently, brain technologies only allowed the study of individual brain processes and so individual intelligence. Now, technologies such as electroencephalography( EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) are letting scientists scan multiple people’s brains as they interact with others. Using these tools, studies have found evidence for what is known as “the interactive brain hypothesis": a premise that when people interact socially, their brains engage in different neural processes than when the same people are thinking or acting on their own.

In the book The Extended Mind:The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie Murphy Paul, the author reminds us that human thought is exquisitely sensitive to context, and one of the most powerful contexts of all is the presence of other people. Further, a 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the development of crucial skills such as setting up hypotheses, designing experiments and analysing data was closely related to students’ engagement with their peers in laboratory settings. So, there is no doubt that the development of intelligent thinking is much more of a social process than an individual process. We work best when we think and act socially.

Solitary cognition, individuals putting their head down and working all alone, will no doubt continue to be an integral part of any work process. Walking away from a problem and having all team members work on it is an important stage of any innovation process.

The pains of torturous commutes in big-city traffic to reach an office is a reality, of course. So, while flexible work hours, which help avoid peak traffic congestion, will surely become the new work norm, solitude at work will always be an exception and not the rule.

Worker protests on the streets of Chicago in 1886 are considered to have contributed most to the establishment of the global 8-hour-day work norm. At a time when the working day ranged from 10 to 16 hours, the 8-hour working day was a paradigm shift.

Forces induced by the covid pandemic will create even more drastic enduring changes in the work environment. The number of working hours will reduce even further. Work will increasingly become an enjoyable activity.

The emerging learning from neuroscience and social sciences that intelligent thinking is a social process and not an individual process will guide the future of work. Work will be more about discussions around the office conference table and less about an individual at a dining table in a pyjama.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

 

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