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Ant Rozetsky photo via Unsplash

“I treat my team like adults. They get to decide when and where they work, as long as they get their jobs done,” one manager told Stanford University economics professor.

Getting employee feedback and allowing employees choice seems to be the way that many organizations are going when it comes to deciding remote and hybrid work schedules.

“It’s … vitally important to allow for personal choice, whenever possible,” the chief human-resources officer for the software platform Smartsheet told the SHRM last July regarding remote work.

“We want to make sure this is collaborative and based on facts and data for our workforce,” the HR association cited another HR executive as saying.

Last year, Bloom, who has conducted extensive research on remote work, took that same view. In a post for Stanford’s Institute for Economic Policy Research, he wrote, “Choice is key — let employees pick their schedules and let them change as their views evolve.”

Since then, his views on the matter have evolved.

Remote workers feel left out

Recently, in a May 25 article for Harvard Business Review, Bloom unequivocally stated, “The future of working from home (WFH) is hybrid.”

Still, because of research he conducted in the past year, Bloom says he has changed his mind about allowing employees to create their own hybrid-work schedules, that is, allowing them to decide which days (or if) they work from the office and which days they work remotely.

In the HBR article, Bloom says his recent research raises two concerns.

One is the difficulty of managing a hybrid team. If some workers are at home and others are at the office, remote workers feel left out, even if everyone is using videoconferencing for meetings, he writes.

“[Remote workers] know after the meeting ends the folks in the office may chat in the corridor or go grab a coffee together,” Bloom said.

His second concern regards diversity. Bloom’s recent research indicates that among college graduates with young children, women want to work remotely full time 50 percent more than men. This is worrying, he adds, because research he published well before the Covid-19 pandemic indicated that remote employees had a 50 percent lower promotion rate than their in-office colleagues.

The troubling promotion rate of remote workers

In an experiment conducted at Ctrip, a 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency, the results of which were published in a 2015 edition of The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Bloom and his co-authors found both benefits and downsides to remote work

Almost 250 Ctrip call-center volunteers were randomly assigned to work either from home or in the office for nine months. Remote workers’ performance increased by 13 percent during the experiment, due mainly to a 9 percent increase in the time they worked during their shifts (the time they were logged in to take calls).

That’s because remote workers had reduced breaks, time off and sick days. Home workers also increased the number of calls per minute, which they attributed to the convenience of being at home and easier access to food, beverages and the toilet.

The turnover of remote workers fell by 50 percent compared with the control group, and they also reported higher work satisfaction.

Despite these positive outcomes, remote work was associated with reduced rates of promotion of about 50 percent, the research indicated.

“A legal time bomb”

“You can see how allowing employees to choose their WFH schedules could contribute to a diversity crisis,” Bloom writes now in HBR, taking into account his previous research in China. “Single young men could all choose to come into the office five days a week and rocket up the firm, while employees with young children, particularly women, who choose to WFH for several days each week are held back.”

This would not only create a diversity crisis but could be “a legal time bomb for companies,” he said in the article.

Changed recommendations

Bloom now recommends that managers decide which days the entire team should work in the office and which days they should work from home.  That would ensure that everyone on a team would be working at home on the same days and be in the office on the same days.

He recommends making an exception for new hires, who should come into the office more often to bond with other new employees.

To optimize use of office space, companies will have to manage the days on which different teams come to the office, he adds, noting that you wouldn’t want the office to be empty on Monday and Friday, when everyone wants to work from home, and packed the rest of the week.

In addition, Bloom suggests teams that work together should coordinate their schedules.

The ability to work remotely can make employees more productive and happier, although managers must ensure that hybrid workplaces are also inclusive and diverse workplaces, Bloom concludes in the article.

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