The WFH Series: Addressing the Measurement Challenges Involved with Managing Remote Work
The Many Questions - and a Few Answers - for One of the More Problematic Aspects of Working from Home and Managing Those Who Do
Moving forward, it will not be enough - for any of us - to make managerial decisions, whether on the micro level for individual employees and their supervisors or on the macro level for organizations and government agencies, to have just the kind of anecdotal, largely self-reported data that we have had to date regarding remote work. For everything from employee productivity and engagement to organizational outcomes to the costs and savings associated with working from home, there should be a real push - both by companies, large and small alike, and by government agencies, both as employers and as wider data collectors - to gather, analyze, use, and disseminate useful information on remote working. This is vital for decision makers, on every level in the private and public sector alike, to make truly informed decisions along the way as we go through this transition in the way we work.
And yes, we know that, as Peter Drucker famously put it way back in 1966, “what gets measured gets managed.” In reality, the only sane way to manage in any environment, and especially one that involves managing remote workers, is through effective measurement. And so there will be a great deal of work - and opportunity - in finding ways to most effectively measure what, where, how, when remote workers are doing what they do and what the outcomes of their work are (and yes, how that compares both to work prior to the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 and work done in the office full-time). Certainly, one of the questions moving forward will be to what extent will remote workers allow themselves and their computers/electronic devices to be tracked and monitored in trade-off for the ability to work remotely. However, the pandemic has brought-on a newfound willingness of employees to be subjected to medical screenings and sharing health information with the employers, and so in the same way, one can foresee this happening in the electronic realm as well.
In regards to the costs and benefits associated with increasing levels of remote and hybrid working arrangements, there will be intense interest in putting some “meat on the bone” in terms of the numbers associated with working remotely, both from an organizational standpoint and on a wider, societal perspective. In some cases, it will be entirely possible to come up with solid data on both the benefits and pitfalls of remote work. How does remote work correlate with individual career metrics, such as advancement, salary increases, and remaining with the company/agency? What does increasing levels of remote work mean for organizations in terms of the ability to recruit and retain talent?
And for organizations themselves, they will be able to use remote work metrics to show how they have lessened their environmental impact simply by using employee data (days worked remotely, distance to office, means of commuting) to put solid figures behind claims like “XYZ Company reduced its carbon footprint by having X number of employees working Y number of days remotely in 2022, saving Z tons in greenhouse gas emissions.” If this data were to be mandated to be reported to a federal agency, say the Census Bureau or the National Bureau of Economic Research, then we could have a far more definitive examination of issues such as the environmental impact of increased remote work. Such a national database could prove invaluable as real, evidenced-based research progresses on the whole issue of the costs and benefits associated with remote working.
Finally though, it must be noted that, as Prusak warned in 2010, we can’t fall collectively into the trap that is found in what he aptly described as the “false corollary” to Drucker’s famous advice that many hold, which is “What can’t be measured isn’t worth managing.” And so while it will be good to have solid metrics upon which individuals and organizations can make more informed decisions, there are going to be areas of benefits - and pitfalls - to increased levels of remote work that can - and cannot - be quantified. What does working from home mean for families? How does it impact kids, and even marital and other relationships? What does working remotely mean for feelings of happiness and well-being, or conversely, sadness and loneliness. While we can use proxies for such “soft” aspects of working from home, such as children’s grades, divorce rates, mental health utilization, etc., it will remain to be seen to what extent such hard data truly measures the impact - both positive and negative - that increased levels of remote working have on individuals and their families. In short, happiness - and sadness - are difficult to fully and accurately capture, whether in outcome data or in surveys. And so as we collectively go forward with the new ways of working, we can’t overlook the aspects of remote work that impact areas that really can’t be measured.
About David Wyld
David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld.
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