Where do you rank in the pecking order at work? Do you have a solid footing in the boss’s inner circle? Could you be in line for the boss’s job? Or are you in the middling ruck, plodding along and getting things done but very much in the B-team?
In ordinary times, it is easy enough to pretend we neither know nor care about this sort of thing. But Covid-19 is stripping office hierarchies bare with a brutality that is impossible to ignore.
The first time I noticed this was back in March, when some firms began to divide their workers into two teams that took it in turns to go to the office or work from home. A friend said her husband, who thought he was in line to replace his boss, had been appalled to learn he was in the team being led by the boss while a rival had been put in charge of the other team. It was, as she said, fairly obvious who was deemed more important.
Nearly three months on, as lockdowns ease and offices gingerly prepare to reopen, I find myself in anxious conversations about how many days one should work from home and how many should be spent in the office. A lot of people I have spoken to are working for companies in serious trouble. If they stay at home, they worry they will be overlooked in the way that remote workers so often are. Worse, they fear thrusting colleagues who ditch their tracksuits and go back to the office will become a gang of stalwarts who forge such lasting bonds in adversity that they become the new A-team. The evidence suggests this is precisely what will happen.
I say this having watched an excellent online talk last week by Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who has spent years studying the pros and cons of working from home.
He spoke about some of his best-known research, which concerns a large Chinese travel agency called Ctrip. In 2010, it decided to see what would happen if some of its Shanghai call centre staff worked from home four days out of five for nine months. Managers hoped to cut both office rent costs and quitting rates, without creating a horde of shirkers.
The results, said Prof Bloom, were “an enormous surprise”. Workers’ performance went up 13 per cent, meaning the firm got close to an extra work day a week from them. Sick days fell. Quit rates halved. Ctrip reckoned it saved nearly $2,000 a year per employee and staff said they were happier. (One was especially pleased: in the office she was driven mad by the woman sitting next to her who was always sneakily cutting her toenails.) There was just one problem. The people working from home were promoted at half the rate of their colleagues in the office. That might not be as dire as it sounds, said Prof Bloom. The home workers might not have wanted a promotion because it would have meant returning to the office. But it is also possible that the people at home were out of sight and therefore out of mind. I would go with that.
Geography is destiny and rarely more so than in the office. One very successful man I know came to work for a big company in London in his twenties and deliberately chose a desk near the men’s toilets. That way, he could saunter in after any male superior and strike up useful chats at the urinal. Try doing that at home.
Location also helped to put Jon Favreau on the path to become Barack Obama’s chief speech writer. After college, Mr Favreau took a relatively junior job on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign team. One day, the desk right next to his was taken by the chief speech writer. Mr Favreau was soon asking his neighbour if he could be deputy speech writer. He eventually did and later joined (then) Senator Obama’s team.
So what should workers do now? The lucky will have a manager who understands the power of proximity and makes sure people at home are not overlooked. That is vital at any time but doubly so when large swaths of the workforce cannot risk commuting for health or childcare reasons, while others can. People at home will always find it harder to be impressive. But only the most unimpressive manager will consign them to the B-team.
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