One of the big benefits promised by remote work is the end of "productivity theater." If an employee is a hundred miles away from the boss, why should they bother creating yet another project-tracking document or scheduling pointless meetings just to appear busy? Instead, why not slip in 20 minutes of yoga or feed your cat until you actually have something to do?
That kind of flexibility is, of course, humane and sensible. But experts also say that not filling every spare moment of your workday actually helps you get more done in the long run too.
Which makes truly flexible, asynchronous remote work deeply seductive. Unfortunately, according to a new report by software companies Qatalog and GitLab, it's still mostly not happening. Remote workers continue to waste more than an hour of every day performing productivity during set office hours, it found.
Old habits die hard.
Drawing on surveys of 2,000 knowledge workers in the U.S. and U.K., the two companies' new "Killing Time at Work" report finds that online workers are behaving too much like cubicle warriors of decades past.
"The dramatic workplace shifts of the pandemic gave us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how we work forever. We could have restructured work to be asynchronous, allowing us to build work around our lives, but we failed. Now, our research shows we're falling back into old habits--ones that should have been cast aside when we had the chance," writes Qatalog founder and CEO Tariq Rauf in the report.
In practice, that looks like remote workers joining Zoom meetings they know will be worthless, responding to emails at strategically selected hours, or other forms of being ostentatiously online to convince colleagues they're working long and hard enough. This kind of digital presenteeism eats up a full 67 minutes of the average remote worker's day, the research found. That a lot of time wasted on productivity theater.
It also probably means lower quality work as well, according to the report. "An overwhelming majority of people (81%) believe they are more productive and create higher quality output when they have more flexibility over when they work," it finds.
Remote without asynchronous makes no sense.
What's the solution for bosses that would like their teams to actually be working (or even resting) rather than pretending to work? The report stresses the importance of making work not just remote but also genuinely asynchronous.
Some things, like brainstorming sessions and decision-making meetings, require gathering everyone together at the same time. But a lot of heads-down execution can be done whenever. It doesn't matter if Jane works on her part of the project at 11 p.m. while early riser Joe is up at 5 a.m. to do his part, as long as neither is a bottleneck for the team.
But while this is true in principle, informal norms and tech challenges mean that many workers feel compelled to prove they're busy and online during traditional working hours. They're remote but not maximally asynchronous, which defeats many of the advantages of a remote setup.
"More than half of workers (54%) say their colleagues are stuck in old habits, and almost two-thirds of people (63%) believe that management and senior leadership within their organization 'prefer a traditional culture with employees in the office.' And when employees can't be in the office, presenting themselves as 'online' is likely seen as the next best thing," the report says.
In other words, many leaders are sending mixed messages, officially encouraging flexible, remote work while informally signaling that those who stick closest to the old 9-to-5 will get ahead. The result is the worst of both worlds--the work-life blur and "quick" midnight email checks of remote work without the benefits of autonomy and control over your time. That's a recipe for burnout and annoyed talent.
The takeaway isn't terribly complex. If you're going to go remote, then you should probably be as asynchronous as possible too. If you say your employees are free to work whenever they want, mean it (and provide the technology to make it possible). Because your team is smart. If you not-so-secretly prefer your people to be online at certain times, what you're likely to get is a whole lot of pointless productivity theater.