The Business Impact of Working When and Where You Want
The news has been filled with a lot of "greats" lately: the great resignation, the great reshuffle and now, the great reflection. The one thing all of these so-called greats have in common is they are all a result of the many changes that took place during the pandemic.
One of the drivers behind these discussions is the ongoing debate around work from home vs. return to office. When employers first sent employees home to work, it wasn't billed as a benefit, but rather an effort to follow guidelines to keep employees and their families healthy. While the initial transition was hard — working at home while children were attending classes via video, creating office spaces for (in many cases) two working adults in addition to finding space for children to study and learn — most people worked it out.
So it only follows that after learning to live with these seismic changes, many people long to continue working at home (or at least not in a central office full-time). This interest comes not only from many employees, but also some employers. Employers cut costs dramatically by letting go of big leases, and employees saved money from commuting and parking. At the same time, as technology allowed the workforce to work from home, having the freedom to choose where and sometimes when you work became a benefit.
We conducted a recent leadership survey with nearly 300 leaders to explore the question of how many leaders (certainly a subgroup of all employees) report they can work when and where they want and how that is related to some other measures, including leadership confidence, employee energy (a measure of productivity) and firm-level performance. The respondents ranged from managers to C-level executives.
Does Working When and Where You Want Matter to Leaders?
In addition to asking a measure of leadership confidence (e.g., an overall scale assessing confidence in the leadership team, personal leadership skills, economy, firm’s strategy, staff, vision, and ability to change), we also assessed their overall energy at work. We've been studying leadership confidence for many years. And while consumer confidence predicts buying, we find that leadership confidence predicts employee willingness to focus their energy on work and stay with their organizations during tough times. Energy is another construct I have measured for over 25 years, accumulating over a million data points from companies around the world on employee energy. Energy is defined as the internal force available for you to exert at work (ability to do work). Our ongoing research demonstrates that energy, assessed with two questions, is a valid measure of productivity at work (e.g., sales, customer satisfaction, safety, performance appraisal scores and more). For energy, we measure current working energy and optimal energy; we then subtract the two and the gap between them is predictive of various performance outcomes. So higher energy is often better, but low gap scores are the best.
Below is a table that combines the data showing how many people reported saying they could work when and where they want to work along with the scores for leadership confidence and energy in each quadrant.
This 2 x 2 shows that 38% of the reporting sample can choose both when and where they work and reported higher confidence and energy than other respondents. Their energy gap was also lower (this is positive for energy data). Leaders are saying they are at their best when they can work where and when they want. The lowest scores are in the quadrant where no such choices exist, and if you have to choose between when and where, it appears the higher scores are associated with where they work.
Survey respondents also provided scores on firm performance, with 1 being very low performing and 5 very high performing. When tracked against publicly available financial data (for public firms), we've found that the two figures correlate.
The table below show the average firm performance for each quadrant.
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Perhaps the next "great" era we are entering is the “Great Reality Check.” Working when you want really isn't an option for many employees, be they leaders or not. However, working where they want, in some form, is becoming a reasonable option, and that may be the biggest shift that is here to stay. The freedom, whether real or perceived, that comes with choosing where to work (even if the choice is only for a certain number of days) has become an employee benefit. And perhaps employees will understand that having the choice of where must be accompanied by sacrificing some control over the when is what's needed to help organizations maintain their competitive advantage and higher performance.
Related Article: In Office vs. Remote: The Final Showdown
The Great Conversation
These data can help leaders in small and large firms have a conversation — maybe a great conversation? — focused on how to schedule work to optimize both individual- and organizational-level outcomes.
At the multiple conferences I've attended over the last two months on both coasts, the topic of when and where employees work arose. The consensus seems to be that the advantage of remote work is here to stay, but the need to connect with peers, your team and customers is an important social need that has to be built into the way companies emerge from the pandemic years.
One conclusion from these results is that helping employees have flexibility on where to work can enhance leadership confidence, energy and firm performance. However, control or management of when employees work appears to be important for higher overall organizational performance. These data are, of course, from a limited sample. However, using the data to engage in dialogue can be very powerful. I'd recommend using this as a starting point to discuss when and where to work — and be sure to keep engaging employees in this dialogue as the landscape of work changes.
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About the Author
Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne is professor in Entrepreneurship at the University of Alabama, and executive director of the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute.
To learn more about these data or to engage with fellow leaders in the Group and Innovation Leaders Forum, contact her at [email protected].