Here in England, everyone has gotten pretty excited about the Olympics. Some of the thrill is despair: It has been the wettest summer on record, floods abound, the economy's in a mess, and the country has been mired in business and political scandals. We all desperately need good news, happy healthy faces doing something they love.
But that's not really what is cheering everyone up.
The truth is that the Olympics will be one great big experiment. London traffic and public transportation are expected to be so overwhelmed that almost every business is expecting, even encouraging, as many people as possible to work from home. Bank executives, financiers, designers, developers, librarians, and programmers. Anyone who can avoid going into the office is encouraged to. The two weeks of the games will be the biggest, longest experiment in remote working that Britain has ever seen.
What will happen? The confident expectation that I hear everywhere is that productivity will increase, morale will rise, and the whole nation will cheer up. This won't depend on how many medals the country wins; it will depend on how much time away from the office everyone enjoys.
A century of research into productivity shows that a major way to improve it is autonomy. The more in control we feel about our work, the more we engage our whole minds. That's why very strict operating procedures backfire. Given too many detailed prescriptions, people pay attention to the letter of the rules, not the spirit. Given a greater sense of freedom, we all engage more wholeheartedly, and think about the meaning and value of the task, and why it matters to do it well.
And of course everyone who does work from home tells the same story. Not only do they save all the commuting time, but they also get more done in the hours that they work. To some degree, this is because they aren't being interrupted. Distractions require gear changes and each one of those costs energy and attention. So if you can start and finish tasks without breaks, you're less tired and your concentration may make the work better.
Working from home also means that when you do take a break, it is likely to be more refreshing. If you can get some fresh air, go for a walk, check in with your kids, your brain gets a chance to reset and recharge. There might even be time to watch some of the games.
The British work some of the longest hours in Europe but, for two weeks, that could change. It's a shame it won't be long enough to track the impact on GDP. My hunch is that this grand experiment could do more for the nation's economy than any government's economic strategy.