IEEE PULSE presents

Disrupting the Normal Routine

State of the Art January/February 2021
Author: Art Johnson

My secretary at the University of Maryland labeled it Working Away From the Office (WAFO). It was my routine to stay home on Wednesdays and write papers, author books, make teaching plans, or grade papers and reports. I would be in my office Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, but everyone in our department soon got used to my absence on Wednesday.

This didn’t happen automatically or easily. The culture in the Agricultural Engineering Department when I was hired in 1975 was one where everyone was expected to appear in their office every day unless they had a program or presentation to make off campus that day. Even then, the expectation was for faculty members to come to the offices first, before driving elsewhere for their appearances. 

But my situation was a little different. First of all, my preferred research area was much more human-centered than was usual in the field of agricultural engineering, so I did not interact easily with other faculty members on a technical level. The second big difference was that my home was a long 75-mile drive away from the university, and, with the traffic at the time on I-95, the minimum travel time one way was an hour and a half, which could stretch on certain days to up to four hours or more. The commute itself could kill me. At least it could sap enough of my ambition and strength that I needed some break in the middle of the week.

So, I rearranged my teaching schedule to hold class on Tuesdays and Thursdays instead of the usual Monday–Wednesday–Friday meeting times for three credit hour courses. I also found that it was easier to write, plan, or grade without the distractions that come with sitting behind a desk in one’s office. Soon, I had more published papers to my name, more research results, more professional society activity, and mostly better student teaching evaluations than anyone else in the department. From then on, the heat that I took for working at home on Wednesdays largely disappeared.

Little did I know at the time that I was 50 years ahead of the times. The COVID pandemic has caused a lot of people to isolate themselves from their officemates and to work remotely from home. When possible, a lot of work could be done using a computer, and meetings could be held using a computer program called Zoom. This type of activity went on for over a year for many. When it looked like the threat of catching a serious disease had abated somewhat, these same people were often expected to return to their offices and work from there. But, people had grown used to the relaxed dress code, schedules, and family obligations that had been made possible when working from home [1]–[3]. Many balked at having to return to the office to earn their paychecks. Some refused to come back, many quit their jobs, and others negotiated for at least some time spent working remotely, as they had gotten used to doing for over a year.

There are reasons for assembling workers in one spot to accomplish tasks that have to be done. But, there are many other reasons for allowing workers some flexibility in how and when they must achieve their assigned goals. We are currently undergoing a fundamental change of work paradigm where workers are able to demand at least some time doing what they had become used to doing during the pandemic. And, it is more than likely that they will become more productive [4] as a result of the increased flexibility that they will have to perform as best as they can when they feel like they are most able.

References

  1. M. Chan, “Not home alone,” Time, vol. 198, nos. 5–6, pp. 48–51, Aug. 2021.
  2. K. J. Delaney, “We’re in a bold new era at work,” Time, vol. 198, nos. 5–6, p. 47, Aug. 2021.
  3. A. H. Peterson, “The empathy trap,” Time, vol. 198, nos. 5–6, pp. 42–46, Aug. 2021.
  4. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Productivity and Costs By Industry: Wholesale Trade and Retail Trade Industries—2020. Accessed: Sep. 1, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.bls.gov/news.release/prin1.nr0.htm

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