The increasing incidence of working remotely: implications for think tanks

27 April 2020

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, various observers of the development of business staff practices are considering the possible lasting effects of the massive shift in the share of professionals working remotely. Bartelbey’s column in The Economist  is an example. One outcome he forecasts is a larger share of people working remotely after the pandemic subsides.

However, some commentators, including Bartleby, point out that fewer staff in the office for fewer hours comes at a cost: reduced casual interaction. Some of these informal exchanges result in useful insights about ongoing work, mentoring, and building a welcomed sense of community among colleagues.  It is also recognised that on-line meetings of various sorts are not a replacement for this kind of casual interaction.

In this context, new research findings by Milena Nikolova and Femke Cnossen at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics in Bonn are important.+ The analysis is authoritative because it is the first to develop a credible conceptual framework and then test it with data from a large, representative data base (48,000+ employee observations) from a survey for 30 European countries.

This article summarises the basic concept and key findings of the research. It then raises possible implications for think tanks. One can also think of this post as a contribution to the discussion around the action point that came out of the recent OTT Conference on technology and think tanks: ‘using the technologies that are available but being aware of the trade-offs they imply.’

Conceptual framework

Nikolova and Cnossen (N-C) employ the concept of meaningful work based on self-determination theory.  The basis for meaningful work is satisfying three needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness.

Competence refers to the perceived ability to overcome challenging tasks at work and contribute to a cause. In other words, it underpins a belief in having the right skills to make a positive impact.  Autonomy is present when one perceives that she has choices and authority over what to do.  Relatedness is about interpersonal relationships at work: where staff experience genuine care from bosses or colleagues and they care about these people in return.

N-C emphasise that these three attributes are not externally determined, but rather strongly depend on each individual’s innate needs. Beyond these factors the work environment and extrinsic rewards, such as compensation and work conditions, support or undermine self-motivation.

The concept of meaningful work is broader than job satisfaction. It is possible for people to have meaningful work and low job satisfaction. As N-C point out, teachers or nurses may often work under poor, frustrating conditions but still find their jobs rewarding.

Analysis and basic findings

The authors employ data from three waves of the European Working Conditions Survey: 2005, 2010 and 2015.  Self-employed persons are excluded from the analysis because they were not asked key survey questions. Two questions gathered specific information on being positively motivated were used to create indicators of job meaningfulness. Information from two questions was utilised to define the relevant variables employed in the multivariate analysis.

The findings stated below are based on models that control for a number of important factors: being a public employee, firm size measured by number of employees, the number of persons supervised, whether the worker has a permanent contract, level of education, and the domestic setting of worker (household size, marital status, and number of children in the household).

The results show that non-monetary aspects of work – such as relatedness, autonomy and competency – have an impact on work meaningfulness 4.6 times greater than income, job insecurity, benefits and working long hours.

In terms of labour market outcomes, greater job meaningfulness predicts greater worker effort (and job satisfaction) as measured by lower absenteeism, a higher incidence of skills training, and a lower incidence of retirement at the time they reach the eligibility threshold age.

These results are striking, even if they are for a broad range of occupations and socio-economic groups. The control variables in the regression models noted above mute these effects significantly.  A more refined analysis focused on white collar workers would certainly be welcome to support our analysis for think tanks. 

Implications for think tanks

These findings have important potential ramifications for think tanks.  All three components of work meaningfulness – relatedness, autonomy and competency – are associated with informal exposure and interactions among employees generally and perhaps superiors in particular.

It is widely appreciated that informal mentoring is effective for developing staff autonomy and competency (chapter 2 in my book Improving Think Tank Management provides a complete discussion on motivating staff). If either the mentors or mentees are frequently away from the office, chances for valuable developmental exchanges are reduced. Only if both parties consciously work to find the time when they are both in the office for development opportunities will current patterns be sustained.

The impact on relatedness may be particularly great.  The development of strong interpersonal relations and respect tend to come over an extended period and through myriad interactions.

Possible responses

So, what might be done to encourage staff to spend a significant amount of time in the office where these critical exchanges and productive meetings can occur?

First, the attractiveness of being in the office can be improved. Open office designs are being widely adopted; this is in part to encourage staff interaction, the value of which is well-recognised, and in part to reduce the square meters per staff member needed thereby lowering office rents.  For some it may be difficult to concentrate on their work through the ambient chatter.

My sense is that the results are mixed on how open areas fair as places to do work requiring full concentration.  Some organisations have firm ‘library rules’ which, when enforced, can control this problem.  Others have found ways to improve office environments. Office layouts that have small closed-door rooms near to the open areas to make or take calls or hold meetings of two-four people seem to necessary if conversations in open areas are outlawed.  Staff in these areas can be encouraged to give out their cell phone numbers so that they can quickly exit the area in the case of incoming calls, thus avoiding having to call back after retreating to a small office.  Staff consistently being disruptive can also be counseled by managers.

Certain office designs can also encourage informal conversations in designated areas. One that I have seen in newly occupied think tank space is to have a fairly large room next to the staff room (with coffee and tea pots, a refrigerator, sink and dishwasher) where there are a few small tables and some chairs scattered about. Staff can go there to talk or wander into it after bumping into each other in the staff room or elsewhere.  It also serves as a lunch room.

Of course, a prime candidate for increasing informal opportunities is to adopt policies that require, or at least strongly encourage, staff to be in the office at the same time on occasion.  There is plenty of commentary about how in-person meetings build relations among people in ways that even video phone calls do poorly. Two or three days in the week could be designated as meeting days, i.e. days when most in-person meetings happen at the office.  Staff can be encouraged to be present on these days. Seminars and similar events could be scheduled then, as well as all-staff meetings. Of course, remote attendance would remain possible.

In sum, the efficiency gains of working and communicating remotely can be impressive. Indeed, many of the meetings conducted this way would never happen if the participants needed to arrive at a common place to participate. International meetings are the most obvious example. Similarly, a large share of the research and related communications that are at the heart of think tank operations can technically be done remotely.

But there are obvious costs to doing so, as the research reviewed in this note documents.  An increased share of work time contributed remotely will mean more staff turnover, more absenteeism, less mentoring, and less job satisfaction.  The challenge for think tank management is to find the right balance for its specific situation.