Friday, April 28, 2023

Home vs. Office: More Elephants Than a First-Rate Zoo

“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.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Six Months of Home vs. Office – II

Back to the views…

Although we don’t know how strong and long-lasting the current trend toward remote work will be, it must be factored into corporate real estate matters, and so we have “The great refurb: Office design joins the conversation on revamping work” (Julia Hobsbawm, Benefit News, February 8th).  The “seismic changes” which “have been triggered in worldwide corporate real estate” can be divided into three areas:  safety, reflecting that “offices remain targets for attack”; sustainability, the environmental kind; and social space, building “fresh, immersive offices which put social experience” in front, trying to hold off “the ennui driving quiet quitting, career cushioning and all the other white collar rebellions and rejections of post-pandemic working life.”  And yet another new expression appeared here, “pointless presenteeism,” or workers being “in an office for no reason doing work they can do elsewhere.”  If the material here takes hold, offices in another decade may be hard to recognize.

I had Fortune pegged as a conventional, management-favoring organ, so didn’t expect it would be the source of “The return to the office could be the real reason for the slump in productivity.  Here’s the data to prove it” (Gleb Tsipursky, February 16th).  A chart starting about 2010 with output, hours worked, and output per hour showed something of a correlation between higher productivity and high-remote-work times.  The piece also cited studies by Gallup showing “as many as half of all Americans may be quiet quitters” and that “the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time… working off-site,” by the Integrated Benefits Institute connecting high employee engagement and satisfaction to working from remote locations, by Monster finding that “two-thirds of survey respondents would quit rather than return to the office full time” causing a time and effort drain if they then seek new positions, and one by Slack uncovering a surprising tendency of onsite workers to be on video calls, a “terrible use of the office” which is “the kind of thing that leads directly to quiet quitting.”  Well documented and described material, but are there also findings supporting the opposite?

Then, we had “Office Mandates.  Pickleball.  Beer.  What Will Make Hybrid Work Stick?” (Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, March 2nd).  The title is a misnomer – perks and features like these are designed to get people happier only about reporting in person – showing that many companies have given up on anything like five-day office requirements.  All of this is reminiscent of efforts throughout the past thirty years, and I see little evidence here or elsewhere of companies having learned from that.

I’ve warned that remote work is setting ergonomics back several decades.  What else was in Jordan Metzl’s March 14th New York Times “Working From Home Is Less Healthy Than You Think”?  Mainly two things – far less walking and moving around especially with the lack of commuting, going to lunch, and even “taking the stairs at work,” and less exposure to other physical humans.  Metzl, a doctor specializing in sports medicine, pointed out that “our bodies remain the same” and that we have innate needs less compatible with staying at home.  All of that can be compensated for, but that negates at least part of the time savings such employees enjoy.

More openness about working-hours recreation, especially involving an old corporate standby activity, seems to have fueled “Golf at 3pm Thursday?  Sure, It’s the Afternoon Fun Economy,” in the New York Times on March 16th again by Emma Goldberg.  The article mentioned people who “can now extend their leisure time into the afternoon, and tack on extra hours of work after dark.”  Golf course employees reported that their sites were “jammed with a new group of golfers” on weekday afternoons, and many hair salon workers reported the same.  We, though, have no idea what share of employees are consistently making up that time at night or at all.

Another classic problem with laboring from home is at the center of “You Call This ‘Flexible Work’?”, by Fred Turner on April 12th, also in the Times.  He described how homes and workplaces became opposites over 100 years ago, with one for earning money and the other for family and other life activities, and borders that would rarely if ever be crossed.  Those changes took a century to develop and phase in, from out-of-control early Industrial Revolution working hours for children as well as adults to widespread acceptance of the 40-hour week.  Now the line dividing them has been erased, and “what’s becoming clear is that we need a new compact for a new technological era.”  What it will or even should be is most likely too early to say.

I was going to present and discuss remote-work-related elephants in the room this week, but there are simply too many pachyderms – by latest count, eight.  So they will be the subject of my next post.  Be ready to open your eyes!

Friday, April 14, 2023

Six Months of Home vs. Office – I

I was surprised to see how long it has been since I had a post about developments in working in offices, working from home or otherwise remotely, and the combination now referred to as “hybrid working.”  Where have these gone in the past six months?

First was “Forget Free Coffee.  What Matters Is if Workers Feel Returning Is Worth It,” by Hanna Ingber, on October 29th in the New York Times.  This piece mentioned that employees newly required to report some days in person, which “after so long away was always going to be a jarring transition,” often complained that “their lives had changed during the pandemic, and they have had to unravel their at-home lifestyle,” including how to “sort out child care and find time to keep exercising,” with problems “no matter what free snacks a company provided.”  As well, “multiple people said the dog was not happy.”  Many then were leaving, or at least threatening that, for more remote pastures.  The question hanging in the air is “how many hours is this scheduling freedom costing employers?” 

A way in which management has been dealing with people out of sight led to “Remote employee monitoring tech is surging” (Hayden Field, Emerging Tech Brew, November 23rd).  From “pre-pandemic” to “the end of 2021” the share of firms using “tech to measure employee productivity” doubled to 60%, with “eight of the 10 largest private US employers” included by August 2022.  Some of that is from not only more people working from home but the pandemic-caused necessity that all, including those they might not trust, do their jobs from outside the office.  There is much here about measuring productivity, which is easy for data entry, but how can they do that for most cubicle jobs, where neither keystrokes nor hours spent measure effectiveness?  I would be more sympathetic to workers’ indignation if those complaining the loudest were not often those who needed monitoring the most.

On we go to “The open questions of hybrid working” (The Economist, December 1st).  The column told us that “the office is not dead but many professionals have settled into a hybrid arrangement of some office days and some remote days.”  One study found that workers appearing in person between 23% and 40% of the time “performed best on various performance measures,” and another pointed toward younger employees needing to be there more.  The other issue here was “how strictly to enforce attendance on days when teams are meant to be in the office,” if the same days were expected for all.

Then, we have “A new challenge for hybrid and remote workers:  Promotions” (Lee Hafner, Benefit News, January 19th).  Not recent, as “if 80% of success is showing up, how can employees in a home office prove themselves equal to their in-office peers?”  One answer, as I have written before, is to accept that as a disadvantage of appearing less in the office – that is unsatisfying yet may be more realistic than expecting companies “to tap into the individual productivity of their workers and make sure that all are on the same page when it comes to responsibilities and company expectations.”  It is still necessary for ambitious employees to “look for opportunities to engage” and otherwise keep high profiles, and such political realities, critically important since before remote work, cannot be expected to disappear.

Back to nebulous total-time expectations with “5 things employers should know about caregiving and remote work” (Deanna Cuadra, Benefit News, January 19th).  These are “remote work is leveling the gender playing field” assuming acceptability of frequently going back and forth between personal and employment responsibilities, “managers and caregivers are on the same page” likewise, “there doesn’t have to be a downside to remote work” which is highly debatable, “caregivers are working more at home – but they don’t mind” but unclear how or even if they are deducting business-hours child care, and “remote work is here to stay” which if no employee percentages are included is not open to question.  This piece reminded us that the subject of working from home has many questions neither side wants to ask or answer.

Finally this week, representing the other side was “Bad news, remote workers:  You need to return to the office for your employer to succeed” (Bob Shultz, USA Today, February 2nd).  This president and CFO of Puritan Medical Products held that “workplace culture binds a company together,” and “it is almost impossible to build a strong, cohesive workplace culture if most workers are not actually on-site.”  Per Shultz, hybrid setups “are more likely to succeed, given the face-to-face component, but fully remote situations are not nearly as conducive to corporate collaboration,” backed by 2022 research showing “that remote workers do not tend to replace in-person interactions with virtual ones; rather they’re more likely to just drop those interactions together,” and by “a study of 60,000 Microsoft employees (which) found that remote work caused them to “become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts.”  He mentioned Bob Iger, Disney CEO, “urging” people to report in person a minimum of four weekly days and saying that “in a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors.” 

Overall, do we have a split between employees and employers, or is there more than that?  What looks like the truth?  What other elephants are in this room?  What has happened in the 2 ½ months since?  See next week’s post for all this and more.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Deceptively Strong Jobs Report Shows Great Robustness Behind Headline Numbers, with Latent Demand, Per AJSN, Down 600,000

I can imagine the comments about this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary.  Only 236,000 new jobs – indifferent.  Employment down 0.1% to 3.5% - per the BLS, “little changed.”  Nothing much happening – is the market slowing down?  All would be badly misleading. 

Yes, net new nonfarm payroll positions gained less than last month, and were a tiny bit below the published 240,000 estimate.  True, some other measures, including the count of long-term unemployed at 1.1 million, and those working part-time for economic reasons or keeping such work while looking for full-time propositions, still 4.1 million, went nowhere, and average private nonfarm payroll wages, up only 9 cents per hour to $33.18, did not keep up with even recently reduced inflation.  But others, including some likely to get little attention, exceeded that.

Of those, total employment, at 160,741,000, made another million-worker jump.  Seasonally unadjusted joblessness dropped 0.3%, a huge amount with limited seasonal significance, to 3.6%.  The count of unemployed, at 5.8 million, was off 100,000, and the adjusted unemployment rate above reflects an 0.1% drop, more meaningful than usual with the number of people saying they had no interest in work down another 100,000 on top of the million last time.  The two figures showing how common it is for Americans to be working or one step away, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, both gained, with the latter up 0.1% to 62.6% and the former jumping 0.3% - a lot for this statistic – to 60.4%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, shaved over 600,000 to reach the following:

The AJSN components above show how stout our employment situation is, and how much better it is still getting.  Of the seven marginal attachment statuses shown in rows 2 through 8, only two – in school or training, and not available to work now – increased this time.  That means, as with fewer claiming no work interest, that Americans are choosing to reenter the job market – and with overall employment numbers rising to historic levels, we see that they are being successful. 

Compared with a year ago, the AJSN also shows we are still improving.  It was over 700,000 higher in March 2022, almost all of the difference from the marginal-attachment categories, especially that of people wanting work but not looking for it for the past 12 months. 

With Covid-19 not a factor and looking like it may never be again, what else can we say about this morning’s data?  It is tremendously solid.  The reality of a strong job market is not in doubtfully significant results such as the drop of advertised positions a few hundred thousand to 9.9 million, of which many, maybe most, are sitting unfilled for good reasons.  It is not in how inflationary the high jobs availability may or may not be – while prices are still increasing, every month’s reports seem to have new 12-month lows.  It is not in taking for granted new-positions figures consistently many times more than our modest population increases can absorb.  And it is not connected with the recession-soon predictions still getting press although moving further and further from reasonability.  These are banner times for work opportunities.  The turtle, once more, took a large step forward. 

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Robots and Other Artificial Intelligence Applications – V

Here is the final installment in this series – at least for now. 

I start with three pieces from earlier this month giving the state of ChatGPT and chatbots in particular, which will continue to evolve but has reached a point where we can talk usefully about where it is going.  The first, “The Chatbots Are Here, and the Internet Industry Is in a Tizzy” (Tripp Mickle et al., The New York Times, March 8th), said that “not since the iPhone has the belief that a new technology could change the industry run so deep,” with the authors forecasting massive shifts for cloud computing, e-commerce, social media, and publishing, affecting “$100 million in cloud spending, $500 billion in digital advertising and $5.4 trillion in e-commerce sales,” although “the volatility of chatbots has made it impossible to predict their impact.”  That spells out the situation now, and only the next several months and beyond will tell the story.

As for the current – or at least three weeks’ ago – technical situation, Cade Metz and Keith Collins told us in the March 14 New York Times that there are “10 Ways GPT-4 Is Impressive but Still Flawed.”  Although “it still makes things up,” its improvements are that “it has learned to be more precise,” “it has improved its accuracy,” “it can describe images with impressive detail,” “it has added serious expertise,” “it can give editors a run for their money,” “it is developing a sense of humor.  Sort of,” “it can reason – up to a point,” “it can ace standardized tests,” but “it is not good at discussing the future” and “it is still hallucinating.”  Expect the next release to be better, sometimes massively, at all of these.  And, if there was ever any doubt, we are getting “Microsoft to bring OpenAI’s chatbot technology to the office” (Dina Bass and Emily Chang, Benefit News, March 16th) – in Office, where I have seen it proposing more continuation text, in LinkedIn, and elsewhere. 

Two more contributions told us things just behind the scenes of artificial intelligence and chatbot’s stunning recent progress.  “The great AI beef,” from Bloomberg Daily on March 8th, told us that “in Silicon Valley, there’s a small but powerful group of people who believe (such advancement) could be very, very bad news – and that AI, if not handled correctly, could wipe out humanity within a couple decades.”  However, “there’s also a crowd who thinks our AI future will be amazing – bringing about untold future capabilities, abundance and utopia.”  “AI theorist” Eliezer Yudkowsky and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, exchanging detailed comments from their stances on the former and latter sides respectively, have had “a somewhat inscrutable, inside-baseball catfight.”  David Wallace-Wells, in “Silicon Valley’s futurists have gone from utopian to dystopian” (The New York Times, March 27th), recapped the situation between Altman and Yudkowsky and saw the latter scenario winning out among AI developers.  That will mean distortion, ultimately for better or worse, in how the technology progresses.

And how about the philosophers?  Because if you purport to perceive how much AI products are doing the equivalent of thinking, that’s what you are.  In “Can a Machine Know That We Know What It Knows?,” also in the March 27th New York Times, Oliver Whang assumed that role and concluded, after looking at possibly pertinent academic studies, that one academic had concluded that “machines have theory of mind.”  Others responded with further work putting that deduction in doubt. Moving from empirical tests to resolving such issues, which call back to the millennia-old problem of consciousness, might be impossible.

I end with “Noam Chomsky:  The False Promise of ChatGPT,” with two co-authors in the New York Times on March 8th.  The long-time linguistics professor named two large concerns about chatbot output.  First, despite being able to integrate masses of information, “such programs are stuck in a prehuman or nonhuman phase of cognitive evolution,” with an “absence of the most critical capacity of any intelligence:  to say not only what is the case, what was the case and what will be the case… but also what is not the case and what could and could not be the case.”  Second was chatbots not being “capable of moral thinking” by “constraining the otherwise limitless creativity… with a set of ethical principles that determines what ought and ought not to be,” the lack of these guidelines making it susceptible to incorporating clearly incorrect input data.  Ultimately, “they either overgenerate (producing both truths and falsehoods, endorsing ethical and unethical decisions alike) or undergenerate (exhibiting noncommitment to any decisions and indifference to consequences).” 

Chomsky’s assessment is superb – with one caveat.  If AI devices produce views that offend us, we should be able to objectively assess them.  We are still in charge, but we must be open-minded.  That will be a real 21st-century intellectual challenge, and will draw as much controversy as ever.  But we will be better as both leaders and followers when we pursue it.  There is no suppressing artificial intelligence, but as has been true with so many past advancements, it will make an increasingly fine servant but will always – always – be a poor master.