In a recent episode of Freakonomics Radio, this exchange about the US Patent’s office “work from anywhere” policy, started even before the pandemic, seemed to really contrast with some of the comments I’ve seen from CEO’s and others about social media. Many of those comments, and many of the comments made by employees, especially younger ones, point to a very distrustful relationship between management and employees. Talking about employees who might be working a side-gig during the work day, or just not sitting at their computer for every second between 8-5, and how they are “cheating” the company,as if working from the office was constant productivity. Or employees talking about expectations around being available 24 hours a day and being berated for not responding to that 10PM email until the next morning, etc.
None of it really points to a functional relationship, and none of it points to the kind of company “culture” that we like to brag about having.
But this bit, seems like quite the opposite:
Choudhury’s analysis of the Patent Office program didn’t include just quantitative data; he also interviewed patent examiners and asked why they seemed to exert more effort once they were allowed to work from anywhere.
CHOUDHURY: And the story that came, Stephen, was one of loyalty. That “I was really helped by this policy because now I could move to Philly and my daughter needs some medical treatment, which is only available in Philly. No other organization will let me work in Philly and do the kind of work I’m doing. So I have to give something back.”
DUBNER: That is so interesting. And it also implies that this increasingly fractious relationship between firms and employees may be turning a corner — at least for some sectors?
CHOUDHURY: Yeah. So we actually framed the work-from-anywhere policy as a non-pecuniary benefit. It was highly valued by the patent examiners, especially women. So the other group I spoke to were the military spouses and diplomatic spouses and their story was that “We had to change our jobs every few years because our spouse was moving some base. And now we don’t have to because now we can work from anywhere.” So it was a story of being happy and working harder.
Hmm, that’s interesting. By giving employees the flexibility to do what they need to do, not just at work, but for their own lives, created a situation where those employees were thankful, and worked harder to show that. Imagine that.
I have written before about my own decision to take a remote job in 2019. It had a lot to do with family, and death. Both of my in-laws, and my Mother passed away in 2019, while I was working in a law firm. There wasn’t anything really wrong with my job, I got paid well, I really liked the people I worked closely with, and even got along with most of the lawyers we worked with. But there was no allowance for remote work. So, while I was spending time out of town helping with funeral arrangements, and dealing with estate information, I was “off”, using some family leave time, and some vacation time. Having to run back to Baton Rouge as soon as possible to avoid using up my vacation time, at a time when I really would have preferred to spend more time there, with family and friends before heading back. Knowing full well, that there was no reason I couldn’t do my job from there. The technology existed, the firm just didn’t allow it.
So, I left, for a job I could do from anywhere. And, most of all, I appreciate the fact that I can do this job from anywhere, even if the pandemic has meant doing it from the same exact spot in my house for the last 15 months. Because, when the time comes, I can be where I need to be, and continue working. That matters. That shows that the company trusts me, and I want to continue to earn that trust by meeting deadlines and getting my work done.
That kind of relationship, or culture if you will, seems to be missing from many companies based on what I’m seeing other people talk about, online and off. Yet, every company out there like top brag about their top-notch “culture”.
Culture isn’t what you say you do, culture is what you do together. And if, together, you have no trust between employees and management, well that’s your culture, regardless of what your mission statements says.
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