Tag: Markus Baer



Many employers have already begun transitioning employees back to the office, while others plan to resume in-office work in the coming months. But after more than a year of working from home, is returning to business as usual even possible? Or desirable?

Employees have changed amid this pandemic. The more a company can match employee preferences and the optimal work conditions required for a given role, the better off they’ll be in terms of hiring and employee retention, according to Peter Boumgarden, an organizational behavior expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

Boumgarden

“Working from home has a level of flexibility that is hard to match in a traditional environment,” said Boumgarden, the Koch Professor of Practice for Family Enterprise at Olin Business School. “Research by Nicholas Bloom and colleagues suggests that employees value this benefit, even seeing it as equivalent to the value they would get from a non-significant pay raise.”

And it’s not just flexibility that employees want.

“We know that autonomy — especially perceived autonomy — is a huge driver of employee satisfaction,” said Markus Baer, professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School. “Just having the sense that you have control of your schedule and when to do certain tasks can boost motivation.”

Of course, there are benefits to working in the traditional office setting for individuals and teams. Interdependent work that requires coordination and input from multiple people is easier to accomplish in person. So are nonlinear tasks like brainstorming. Being co-located also helps employees feel connected to the team and provides networking opportunities that can help them advance their careers. This kind of rich social connection can be hard to mimic online, Boumgarden said.

Despite some of the benefits, some employers are seeking a return to more traditional working conditions.

“In my view, the return to office is driven by some mix of companies trying to recapture some of those lost elements, the desire to use expensive office real-estate set up for this strategy and, perhaps, because the old world still feels a bit more familiar,” he said. 

No one-size-fits-all approach

The question should not be whether to return to the office, continue working remotely or some hybrid option, but rather: What is the nature of the employee’s work? That’s what should drive return-to-work plans, Baer said.

Baer

For individual contributors, going into the physical office is less essential. In fact, many people have found over the past year and a half that they are more productive working at home without the typical office disruptions.

However, co-location becomes increasingly important as work becomes more interdependent and complex — especially when frequent communication is required, Baer said. Collaborative tasks such as ideating or coordinating projects are accomplished more efficiently in person.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean employees need to be in the office full time. For many teams, the ideal arrangement will change week to week based on current work needs, Baer said.

“There’s some research that shows that teams do really well when they have bursts of activity. I could envision teams coming together for a week or a block of intense activity to solve a problem and then disband when the problem is solved and it’s clear who is going to do what. Once those tasks are complete, the team can reconvene,” Baer said.

Hybrid challenges

From a productivity standpoint, a well-planned hybrid arrangement offers the best of both worlds: time in the office to plan and coordinate work, and uninterrupted time at home to complete tasks. Hybrid arrangements also enable employees to retain an office footprint while keeping some of the flexibility they’ve enjoyed over the past year and a half. For these reasons, Boumgarden believes hybrid work will be the future for many organizations. However, the challenges of hybrid work are significant, perhaps even more so than traditional in-person offices and fully remote work environments, he said.

“There’s some research that shows that teams do really well when they have bursts of activity. I could envision teams coming together for a week or a block of intense activity to solve a problem and then disband when the problem is solved.”

Markus Baer

“Very few of our offices are technologically or socially set up for a world where half of the workers are in the office and half are working from home,” Boumgarden said. “Managers needs to be thinking very hard about workflows required to drive efficiency and innovation in this new set-up. Overcoming these challenges will require investment of time and capital on the part of leaders.”

There are also employee management issues to overcome in a hybrid model. For example, if one person decides to work from home more frequently and another stays in the office, will they be seen equally by their superiors?

“I would argue that true clarity of expectations is critical. Workers should know both what the stated expectation is, but also what is the implicit norm,” Boumgarden said.

Lessons learned

For those who plan to return to a traditional office work arrangement, there are still lessons to be learned from the great work-from-home experiment. For starters, leaders need to revisit how frequently they schedule meetings, Baer said.

“When people are co-located, it’s easy to call a meeting to discuss something, but oftentimes these meetings are unproductive and nothing is really accomplished that couldn’t have been done in a simple email exchange,” Baer said.

The same communication tools that kept teams running while working remotely — such as Microsoft Teams, Skype or Slack — can still be used to inform employees or collect information without forcing them to sit through yet another meeting.  

Boumgarden hopes the experience of managing remotely will ultimately change how leaders do their jobs when they’re back in the office.

“For managers, I hope there are lessons learned about how one manages toward outcome versus micromanaging process alone,” he said. “Let’s start by acknowledging true contribution cannot be linked to minute and hours alone. For example, I might have an exceptionally productive hour that is equivalent to my typical four hours of output. The next day, I might have four hours of time that distill down to less than an hour of true ‘productivity.’ Or what about the breakthrough that occurs on a run or while lying awake at night? How should this be managed? Does it count as work time? These are the questions our next generation leaders should be asking.

“All this said, as soon as we realize that contribution does not neatly map onto time blocks, our way of assessing work should evolve,” Boumgarden continued. “I hope managers start to think about how they might creatively evaluate progress toward goals, while at the same time realizing that people work in different ways to reach this value.

“By not being able to micromanage over the last year-plus, I think many people had a realization that their actual management was much more superficial than truly additive of value,” he added.  

But perhaps the most important lesson we all learned over the past year and a half is the importance of remaining flexible.

“I think there is value in saying new models are still experiments. A company might roll out one approach to hybrid for some time and then adjust back as the data gives insight around what is and is not working,” Boumgarden said.




Forget the 30,000-foot, big-picture view. When faced with a cutting-edge technological idea, business leaders who approach the idea in more concrete “how” terms — rather than in abstract “why” terms — are less likely to be deterred by its novelty and more likely to recognize its utility, which increases their propensity to invest, according to new research from Olin.

This method of information processing, known as a low-level construal, is especially useful for leaders who lack technological expertise.

In today’s rapidly changing world, companies that are willing to embrace new technologies often have an edge over the competition. Yet decision-makers who are out of their depth with a novel technology often reject it because they lack the expertise to make sense of the technology, resulting in a sense of uncertainty and general unease with the idea.

Baer

“The further removed decision-makers are cognitively from an idea, the less likely they are to invest in it,” said Markus Baer, professor of organizational behavior and study co-author. “Keeping up with the rapid pace of technology can be especially challenging. But missed opportunities and failing to keep up, technologically speaking, is a recipe for failure.”

What’s a business leader to do?

“Research suggests that managers tend to undervalue ideas that fall outside their area of expertise and overvalue ideas that are squarely in their wheelhouse,” Baer said.

“And it gets worse. The further removed they are intellectually from the idea, the more likely they are to view it as too ‘out-there’ and as less useful, both of which make it less likely that decision-makers will financially commit to the idea.”

To overcome this expertise gap, previous research has suggested managers should engage in a type of deliberate cognition that involves drawing on prior experience with similar ideas to evaluate new technological ideas. However, that’s not possible when the idea is truly novel.

Baer — along with Matthew P. Mount of Deakin University and Matthew J. Lupoli of Monash University, both in Australia — wanted to better understand the ways in which managers process information about novel technological ideas and how that influences their interpretation and likelihood to invest.

Their research findings, forthcoming in Strategic Management Journal, offer a way for business leaders to overcome organizational inertia and recognize new technological opportunities.

Abstract vs concrete?

Baer, Mount and Lupoli conducted two experiments to study how expertise distance and information-processing style influence perceptions of novel technological ideas and likelihood to invest.

The first experiment took place “in the field” and involved 300 senior R&D and innovation investment decision-makers who work for organizations that were exploring Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) as a novel cybersecurity technology. QKD is a secure communication method that relies on cryptographic protocol involving components of quantum mechanics. Participants were given information about the technology and then were asked to rate how novel and useful the technology was. Finally, they were asked to specify the proportion of their annual disposable income they would be willing to invest to bring QKD to market.

The second experiment, an online survey, included nearly 500 middle- and upper-level managers. Participants assumed the role of a senior executive of a fictitious, application-based taxi company “AppCab” faced with the prospect of investing in a fleet of self-driving cars. They were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions — expert/concrete thinking, expert/abstract thinking, non-expert/concrete thinking or non-expert/abstract thinking.

Respondents in the expert groups were given detailed information about the self-driving cars, while respondents in the non-expert group were given general background information about the taxi industry. Respondents in the high-level construal groups were asked a number of “why” questions to switch their thinking to an abstract mode, while respondents in the low-level construal groups were asked “how” questions to shift their thinking to a more concrete mode. They also were asked questions about the perceived novelty and usefulness of the technology. Finally, they were asked to rate how likely they were to invest in the fleet of self-driving cars.

“Across our two studies, we show that decision-makers who are distant from a highly novel technological idea in terms of domain expertise are less likely to invest in it. However, our results also show that the effect of expertise distance is entirely dependent on how abstractly vs. concretely they approach the idea,” the authors wrote.

Shifting managers’ perspectives

As the current research demonstrates, how decision-makers process information influences their interpretation of novel technological ideas, which ultimately shapes their investment decisions.

“Highly novel ideas, when evaluated by decision-makers who have no expertise in the relevant domain, are perceived as too uncertain and too risky,” Baer said. “Changing how they approach the idea can help managers mitigate the negative effect of expertise distance.”

Many leaders believe they need to focus on the big picture and leave the day-to-day tasks and small details to lower-level managers and employees. Indeed, there can be benefits to this high-level perspective. Decision-makers engaged in high-level thinking are future-oriented and tend to focus their attention on abstract, broad information related to distant goals.

However, when it comes to evaluating novel technology, this type of high-level construal thinking can hold leaders back.

“Most decision-makers have a preference for rationality and predictive accuracy over the uncertainty inherent in novel technological ideas,” Baer said. “When leaders focus only on the high-level, abstract features of the technology, they tend to over-emphasize the novelty and risks of the idea, which, in turn, decreases their likelihood to invest.

“Our research shows this type of thinking can compound the negative effects of decision-makers’ expertise distance on the propensity to invest in novel ideas.”

In contrast, decision-makers using low-level construal are present-oriented and tend to focus their attention on concrete, narrow information related to the benefits and feasibility of adopting the novel technology. By focusing on the idiosyncratic, technical details of highly novel ideas and aspects of feasibility, decision-makers may be more inclined to perceive the idea as being useful and, by extension, less novel and risky, Baer said.

Ultimately, the research highlights the unique value of adopting a more concrete way of thinking when faced with radical technological change.

“By shifting the way in which they evaluate novel ideas — from abstract to concrete — managers will improve their ability to recognize the potential value of groundbreaking ideas, maintaining a technological edge on the competition,” Baer said.