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Autonomy vs. Control: Unpacking the Controversy of What is More Productive


An satirical employee teaching what productivity is while another employee suggests that this teaching is the antithesis of being productive



The Surprise Byproduct of Change

The beginning of the 2020’s brought upon many things. Covid, anger, riots and a new way in which we work. Beginning in March of 2020, this new realm of ‘work from home’ abruptly became the new normal, as millions were forced to lockdown, mask up and social distance from the threat of a new virus. With this immediate change we saw computer monitor sales blow up, home offices and gyms become priority, company tech budgets advance and a progressive way to work emerge.


At first, the fear of getting sick led the way. The majority didn’t necessarily contest this change. We did what we had to do. We finished or created that home office. We started working earlier or later. We bought Pelotons or got creative about how to not only work from home, but how to work out from home. What was once only the lifestyle of a few became the new standard for offices and white-collar workers.


One Big Inadvertent Social Experiment Around Productivity

In what I like to consider the ‘biggest inadvertent social experiment of our time,’ life changed for the good, as well as the bad. Some of the good? Well, we cut out hours of daily commuting, while parking our cars for days at a time. This saved money and the environment. Families started to spend more time together and some of the intense career fog cleared, allowing us to revisit the roots of happiness. Maybe this was a bike ride with your spouse and kids, happy hour with the neighbors, making dinner as a family, a quick ride to the coast for the sunset after work. Our worlds became smaller and simpler. We weren’t distracted.


In addition to happier workers, productivity has seen an uptick, as well. About 56% of workers reported being slightly or considerably more productive during the pandemic. By contrast, only 28% reported being either slightly less or considerably less productive.


Blurred Lines?

Some of the bad? The invisible border between home-life and work-life was now blurred. We worked well into the evenings and were up way before start time. Our laptops staring at us like a new puppy from across the room asking for some love, tempting us to do just a bit more. Why not? Why not impress the boss or prove that you are really working. Productivity soared and mental health tanked. Burnout ensued. Some figured out the best way to balance, some lost the balance they once had.

Statistics showing the biggest struggles with remote work

That said, not everyone had the luxury to ‘work from home.’ There are plenty of jobs that support the backbone of the US that have no office. These folks didn’t have the choice. Their world didn’t change. Life went on.


But, as with anything in society today, we must find a way to argue about it. Who is right, who is wrong? Let’s throw a rock at those who disagree. The theory that someone has to lose for someone to win continues to be the distorted way of thinking in our world. Win-Win vs Win-Lose.


Once the initial shock of the change passed, we searched for the argument. It was easy to find. Some said being hybrid and working remote created a lack of productivity. Others said the opposite—that Covid finally forced society to put into motion what many of us knew we could do already. That it took a pandemic for us to move forward technologically and from a labor standpoint.


Let’s not forget cost savings for businesses. Imagine what could be done with this.

Chart showing the average real estate cost savings of remote and flexible work

Reading a recent article on foxbusiness.com, I couldn’t help but find the reinforcement that the mindset around work from home (WFH), hybrid work or full-time in the office continues to be a significant generational and confirmation bias topic. I can’t count the number of times I have heard many from the baby boomer and older generations argue that, ‘your people just have to be in the office to get work done,’ or, ‘you can’t manage people if you can’t see and touch them.’ Shaking. My. Head. Most of these comments coming from folks that 1. aren’t working anymore 2. can barely even use FaceTime on their iPad 3. believe that managing people, not leading them, is what creates productivity.


Then we discuss the topic with Gen X and Millennial workers (30’s, 40’s and 50’s) and we get the complete opposite take. Is full-time remote work amazing? Many would say no. But the inefficiency of five days a week in the office has certainly been exposed. Again, it is change. Many set in their ways simply hate change, even when it makes sense. It’s only okay when it fits their narrative.


The prep time, the commute in, the water cooler talk and the commute home keep many wondering ‘what in the world we are doing?’ It reminds me of the time when banks created online bill pay systems, only to have the standouts who were still determined to spend hours at the dining room table, writing checks and licking stamps, just to avoid a more efficient way. All this talk about work/life balance, lessening our carbon footprint and mental/physical/family health seems to have been short lived.


So what is the answer? Like most things it probably lies somewhere in the middle. But, that would mean we would all have to discuss it and use logic. Good luck.


Using an Irrelevant and Outdated Metric for a Confirmation Bias

So, let’s return to this Fox Business article (to be clear, I am not picking on Fox Business, as this was just the latest piece of many sources stating the same thing). The article states that “American workers aren’t getting nearly as much done this year as they used to.” This is fully based on a short-term data point showing that the annual amount of worker output has declined. This is the first time we have had three consecutive quarterly declines since 1982. Reading these couple bullets and the headline may make many people think that we are just getting lazy and not working as much. Creating a good reason to say ‘told ya so,’ from those I mentioned earlier. The fact is, reading headlines can be dangerous.


This assumption begs the question of ‘how do we measure worker productivity and is it really an accurate gauge in 2022?’ According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), this productivity figure compares the number of hours worked to the output produced during that time. The BLS also states that the ‘US (and other countries) collect data on hours worked, making it possible to measure output per hour worked.’ Hmm.


I can see this having some accuracy in blue-collar industries—manufacturing or some sales roles—but I’m curious as to how you could paint this data with a broad brush, especially in 2022. Maybe in some sectors…but to gauge a whole economy?


The line between what describes blue-collar jobs and white-collar jobs continues to be a bit blurred, but there is no question that our economy has continued to grow more white vs. blue-collar professions at a significant clip. But, like many economic analyses, we are comparing two vastly different economies using the same metric.


According to the BLS, the US economy is currently made up of roughly 75-80% white-collar jobs and 20-25% blue-collar jobs. If we take a time machine back to 1982, these percentages were a lot closer to balanced, given the characteristics of the US economy at that time. Before 1982, the numbers take a parabolic pattern vs today, making history even less of a guide.


Knowing these underlying facts is vital when we report production. Why? Most white-collar workers are paid on salary, many work way more than just 40 hours per week and many don’t produce a measurable product. Therefore, the statement that production is down is misleading, at a minimum. Making this statement without providing background could certainly be seen as irresponsible journalism or, at a minimum, feeding your audience’s bias.


From a personal perspective, my colleagues and I have worked more efficiently, seamlessly, productively and have put in way more hours than pre-pandemic times. Our success as a business over the past three years is a reflection. This was all done by autonomy and leadership, not management. Finding the perfect recipe for the long-term is the only mystery yet to be solved.


There is certainly a fair argument that newer associates and the generation entering the workforce and looking to grow their career need to in-person collaboration. But, instead of picking a side, can we not work to find a structure that works for all? Once again, win-win vs. win-lose.


After covering the details above, the question remains—how do we measure output if the vast majority of our labor force 1. doesn’t get paid hourly 2. works odd hours around the clock and 3. doesn’t actually produce a measurable product? Also, why are we hanging onto old metrics that don’t really mean anything in the modern world? Answers may vary, but they make a great headline and solve for the confirmation bias of many.


In the end, we all know that every industry has the overachievers, the solid middle and the underachievers. Remote working has certainly allowed those underachievers to slack off, take mid-morning naps and have their spouse bump their mouse from time-to-time to make it look like they are online. But, remote working has also created a large number of workers who are dedicated, become laser-focused on their work, produce more than ever and have been able to do all of this while improving the quality and balance of their personal lives. Is this really something we should be working to reverse? Like the old saying 'the beatings will continue until morale improves.' From recent job posting data, reversal is not on the table.

Chart showing the amount of remote job postings per industry in 2020 and 2021
Finding Your Own Special Sauce

This human/work study is only just beginning. Companies will either adapt or fail. They will find what works best for their business and for retaining talent. You know, those people that actually make their business work. Flexible and remote working is not going away. It is saving many firms’ a significant expense. Is the argument financial, personal or just one of control? Throughout history, business has been forced to adapt and change to consumer tastes and the workforce’s wants and needs. Fighting it without understanding it is a recipe for struggle. Time will tell, but many of us are excited for the future of work. Maybe this change is the final ingredient to the elusive 'work-life balance' the world could never seem to find. There isn't much argument that it allows for a better quality of life.


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