“The elephant in the room: a major problem or controversial issue that is obviously present but avoided as a subject for discussion because it is more comfortable to do so.” – Oxford Languages
We have ‘em here, folks.
Until ChatGPT and its kin came along, remote work was without competition as the largest issue facing employed American workers. Why has assessing its merits been hopelessly difficult? One reason has been the perpetual failure of businesses to learn from experience. Another was the pandemic, when many companies had no choice but to embrace work outside the office. A third is a lack of good information. But a fourth is that the space for reflection, analysis, and communication has been crowded. Eight elephants in that room take up a lot of space, and they haven’t gone anywhere.
What are these pachyderms? Here they are, posed as questions nobody seems to want to go on record answering.
First, how many hours of actual net work are people putting in during days they are working from home and during days they are in the office?
Second, how can anyone claim to know quantifiable performance levels for non-production cubicle workers?
Third, how many daily or weekly on-the-job hours do managements expect from full-time employees?
Fourth, when companies change from five to four-day workweeks, how many actual on-the-job hours do they expect before and after the change?
Fifth, to what extent, if any, does an impressive set of annual achievements compensate, in performance reviews, salary treatment, and promotions, for lower than usual work hours?
Sixth, how do managements tell the difference between quality and quantity of actual work and hours spent at it?
Seventh, what are managements’ true attitude toward people working extra hours?
Eighth, what limits, if any, are there on flexible time for people working from home?
As an old but real sample, here are the answers, as I understood them, in force during my AT&T 1990s management career.
On the first, those telecommuting, as it was then known, clearly worked less than if they were in the office, but actual work there seldom approached eight daily hours. One co-worker of mine spent a year and a half in the office 25 weekly hours and working about 5 – it took a large, general downsizing for this person to be removed. But others reported for 60 or more.
On the second, management muddled performance levels out for annual reviews, but perception levels varied dramatically.
Third, ostensibly 40 per week, but with long lunches the norm actually more like 35, though extra hours received a small amount of appreciation.
The fourth did not apply. On the fifth, it generally compensated well, unless the immediate supervisor did not like the worker in question.
On the sixth, employee writeups for performance reviews often helped, but beyond that it was sketchy.
Seventh, they enjoyed people being there longer, but though they postured about it being necessary, they always stopped short of requiring it.
On the eighth, I knew of none. People telecommuting were often unavailable during normal business times, to the point of asking that others did not call them. Overall, days working from home were treated as midway between being in the office and having the day off.
How does your work group compare? Is or was yours also officially silent on all eight? I don’t think that has changed much in thirty years.
Of course, organizations, and groups and managers within organizations, will differ on these issues. But until we can get baselines on these, and understand what the norms really are, we will make little progress with them, and get the least of our human resources by confusing and discouraging people trying to play by the rules. That’s a waste for all concerned.