Home office horror?

As the pandemic winds down, employers are asking even more frequently whether they should continue to provide work-from-home opportunities or whether they should return to the pre-pandemic situation. Although the majority of managers eventually decide to keep the home office as an option, some still do not support this form of working.

The most common arguments against home office (for example, based on an earlier opinion piece on index.hu):

– The worker does not have enough self-control to do the job without supervision and direction.
– Employees will not develop themselves if they are not forced to.
– The employer cannot take responsibility for uncontrolled work.

–  Without constant monitoring, the quality of work is reduced.
– Without proper restrictions, confidential information can leak out.
– Home workers will not be loyal if they are  not kept under control.
– The staff will not help each other, as everyone is only trying to do their job. And if there’s no control over how much time they spend working, they’re more likely to skip work.
– Activities at home can take time away from work if we don’t keep a check on what they are doing.
– It is easy to get away with truancy.
– Legislation is lacking.

Supervision. Force. Control. Monitoring. Check. Legislative measures. Hmm…

Are these concerns justified? Are they real? Let’s see what the statistics have to say.

The performance impact of working from home

Well, it’s not going to be easy. There is a lot of research out there, but there are also very different results when it comes to the effect of the home office on employee productivity: +13 percent, +47 percent, performance increases for 77 percent of those affected, these are good news, but there are also discouraging examples: an old survey, before the days of COVID, found that colleagues working from home were 70 percent less likely to receive an outstanding performance appraisal, compared to those who are seen in the office day in, day out. Disappointingly, another survey reports a straightforward 8-19 percent drop  in performance, even as time spent at work has increased by 18 percent in the same organisation.

As if both groups, opponents and supporters, are right…

The attitude of the manager is important

In the 1960s, social psychologist Douglas McGregor developed Theory X and Theory Y, which may help to explain these phenomena. Although the theory was later developed further, it is sufficient to consider the model in its original form for the purposes of this article.

According to McGregor, there are basically two contrasting beliefs  that bosses share.

X Theory

The first, the Type X manager’s core belief is that employees

– do not like their job,
– have little intrinsic motivation,
– avoid responsibility,
– require constant direction and control,
– can work against the organisation if not kept at bay,
– their motivation is maintained through restrictions, penalties and regulation,
– loyalty must be forced out of workers who
– must be supervised without interruption, otherwise their work will not be completed.

Supervision. Force. Management. Feeding. Control. Monitoring. Check. Legislative measures.. Sound familiar?

Type X management, although it may seem unpleasant, has its place, typically in jobs that do not require expertise or creativity, where it is difficult to find purpose, challenge and pleasure in the work, and which do not require direct contact with customers – because employees working in such environments will inevitably use Type X management tools in dealings with customers as well. These are typically blue collar rather than knowledge worker  jobs that cannot usually be done from home.

Y Theory

McGregor’s theory is that the other type of leader, the type Y, believes that

– people have a strong intrinsic motivation,
– they find their work meaningful, which
– makes them proud,
– they also like to do challenging tasks, and therefore
– are happy to work on their own,
– they have the ability to make independent, responsible decisions, and
– can solve problems in creative and innovative ways, so
– they rarely need to be controlled,
– and if they do, it is more in the form of support or help.

Today, there is a growing emphasis on self-organization, team autonomy, servant leadership, leader-leader  approach, or Holacracy as a decentralized form of organizational governance, to name just a few examples. These are all based on Y-type leadership and have been proven to be much more effective than X-type management in environments requiring creativity or high expertise.

Are the X managers’ concerns about the home office justified?

Of course. The most interesting part of the theory is that for intellectual jobs that require human knowledge and creativity – typically work from home jobs – both theories act as self-fulfilling prophecies.

Under Type Y leadership, if employees see the meaning in their work, see it as a challenge, take pride in their achievements, it will boost their intrinsic motivation and consequently they will excel without any controls or constraints. A Y-type leader therefore does not have to worry about their colleagues working from home, but he or she has to support his or her team in a different way compared to work performed in the office. There are techniques, books and easy-to-learn courses where this knowledge can be gained. And without constant interruptions, without the constant “buzz” of the office, it is much easier to achieve a state of deep work, and better quality is produced  faster. In addition, travel time being freed up means more free time, less stress, more mental reserve and therefore more willingness to devote it to work outside normal working hours, as opposed to a stressful working model with less free time. Of course, the home office has its disadvantages, but under Y-type management these are not the ones listed at the beginning of this article..

For the Type X manager, on the other hand, the loss of control in the home office is a horror. This mistrust is often caused by the boss’s insecurity, questioning his or her own expertise and then projecting it onto others, i.e. lack of self-confidence. The stronger the fear, the greater the need to control. At the same time, micro-managed workers who work under constant supervision will loathe their jobs, they will experience it as a horror and their intrinsic motivation will plummet. Difficulties in approval and coordination not only further erode autonomy and morale, but also introduce huge delays in the work process.  As a result, work productivity actually decreases, the anxiety of the type X manager increases, he/she micro-manages even more, starting a vicious spiral.  It is also very difficult to get out of this spiral, because if the micro-management is eliminated for some reason, for example because it becomes more difficult to implement due to the change to home office, frustrated and demotivated employees suddenly find themselves in a breathing space and prefer to escape from work, justifying all the fears of the type X manager. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the productivity indicators quoted above showed a decline in precisely those surveys where employees were kept under tight control, their work was constantly monitored by computer software, and even more mandatory meetings were imposed on them despite the home office. Another key finding of the study was that in this case, workers worked more but had less time to devote to deep work because of the constant breathing down their necks.

What can be done?

Reversing the vicious circle of Type X is extremely difficult because

– as a result of the above-mentioned backlash phenomenon, the demotivated worker does not regain enthusiasm when supervision is withdrawn, but uses his time for substitute activities, licking wounds, and
– the type X manager is terrified of losing control, all his instincts are working against it, so he or she will not give it up easily. Human instincts, the basic nature of a person, are very difficult to change and personal and social skills, the so-called soft skills, required for Type Y management are very difficult to improve.

In more serious cases, get rid of the manager. Period. This may come as a shock, since replacing, demoting, firing and the like are typical repertoire for a type X manager. Why is this one of the few instances where it is still worth taking advantage of, even if the target is a Type Y environment? For that very reason. Plenty of organisations tolerate managers who once demonstrated great expertise, but who bully their subordinates at the same time, because these organisations believe that tolerating them is a small price to pay for constantly working employees and that imposing discipline will only be good for the performance of subordinates. It is not. In an environment that requires creativity, Type X managers hinder productivity, but this is not always obvious because of the above backlash phenomenon and because Type X always blames others for their failures and themselves for the successes. Even if they are good professionals (if they are), their behaviour can undermine the work and qualities of many equally good professionals, block their creativity, and overall we lose more expertise through their behaviour than their individual knowledge. Even if they are the best, their attitude hinders the development and learning process of the others, thus preventing them from exploiting the hidden potential of their colleagues. Such a manager is difficult to change and if they do manage to change their behaviour, they will revert to their old ways in no time without supervision (does it sound similar to the backlash effect mentioned above?). Even if they manage to overcome this obstacle, the trust of their subordinates is not fully gained, the change is not accepted as credible by the staff, and a climate of mistrust breeds mistrust – and X-type leadership.

Most of the time, the change of position results in frustration for the Type X managers, but it is also good for them and will make them feel better in the long run. After all, it is often precisely because of their outstanding expertise that they are promoted to a managerial position, without taking into account their real managerial qualities. And since their promotion, they have been tied up in management, so their professional skills have been constantly eroding and diminishing in a rapidly changing world. They feel this, and in many cases it is the cause of the frustration they have to vent on their subordinates.

The above suggestion is not, despite its dramatic nature, an empty one. A lot of successful companies have recently introduced the so-called “No asshole rule” (yup, that really is the name), which promotes zero tolerance for managers who place excessive restrictions on subordinates.

If this is not possible, or if the manager is on the X side of the X-Y scale but in the middle, careful, tireless coaching can bring about improvement, moving manager X towards manager Y – to their relief and that of their colleagues. However, this requires that X-type managers understand and want change, and that their team members are willing to give them a new chance.

You can learn more about the different leadership styles, especially about servant leadership in category Y, in our Agile Leadership and Advanced Scrum Master courses.

The authors are consultants at Sprint Consulting, and the article was written in a home office, beyond the standard 8 hours workday.

Written by: Gábor Erényi, János Megyeri