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Darwin's Medicine blog

Professor Brian D Smith is an authority on the pharmaceutical industry and works at SDA Bocconi University and Hertfordshire Business School.

Evolving at home

How we work from home will evolve in a Darwinian way, too

As a Darwinist, I react to change by wondering: ‘How will this change the selection pressures and what new traits will they select for?’ I’m used to doing this at a grand scale. For example, my books consider how systeomic medicine, technology revolution and epidemiological shifts shape business models. But Darwin’s wonderfully ubiquitous idea applies just as well to understanding smaller changes. As usual, I’m going to lead you to a practical conclusion, this time regarding working from home, via a short excursion into Darwinism.

We are the chosen ones

Whenever we see an animal with a characteristic feature or behaviour, we’re seeing the result of natural selection. You have that big brain of yours because the evolutionary environment favoured your clever ancestors over their dimmer cousins. Likewise, beavers build amazing dams because the natural environment selected for that behaviour.

The same is true for business behaviour. Theranos failed because the environment selected against the company’s shady behaviour. You need to work for a company with compliant regulatory behaviour because otherwise it wouldn’t last long. On a smaller scale, we see selection in the everyday behaviour of competent individuals and teams. The business environment selects for cooperative behaviour and delivering on promises, for example. You’ve probably had colleagues who didn’t have those behavioural traits and saw that they were ‘selected against’ by the business environment.

That brings me to the COVID-19-driven change in our working environment: working from home. For many of us, this is a big change from constant face-to-face meetings. My Darwinian instincts lead me to ask how this change will select for or against behaviours in the workplace. To answer that question, look at what you see in your working life.

Manners maketh the man or woman

What really happens in the typical working from home environment? You’re on a conference call, but you’re simultaneously clearing out your inbox. You’re zooming, but you switch off the camera while you WhatsApp your other colleagues. You set up calls at 30-minute intervals because you’re so busy and calls allow you to get to the point without chatting. In short, the ability to be present but remote and invisible allows a behaviour that would be socially unacceptable in a face-to-face meeting.

Now consider what we know about the social-interaction behaviour of very successful people. That is, people whose behaviour has been selected for by the business environment. Jeffery Pfeffer, the eminent and entertaining Stanford professor of organisational behaviour, describes effective behaviour beautifully. He extols the traditional virtues of good manners: punctuality, giving the speaker your full attention, taking time to build a personal connection. Pfeffer, and many other authorities, see these behaviour traits as characteristic of people who are good influencers. And I hope I can assume that my readers understand the value of being a good influencer. In many ways, it’s the single most important organisational behaviour trait – an executive’s superpower.

Human nature

So, here’s the evolutionarily fascinating thing. We know that influencing power is strongly favoured in the business environment and we know that it arises from a cluster of behaviours we might summarise as traditional politeness. And yet we also observe that many remote workers, when removed from the face-to-face meeting environment, behave in an exactly contrary way: they turn up late, multitask and miss out the small talk. Why should this be? Through my Darwinist lens, it’s an adaptation to an environment where remote working was relatively rare and supplemented with lots of in-person meetings. In other words, you can behave badly for 10% of the time on Webex if you behave politely for the other 90% in person.

But here we are in a world where, for an unforeseeable period, much more of our business interaction will be remote. In that new world, the sloppy remote-working behaviour that worked in the old world is a mismatch and our behaviour that evolved when occasionally working from home will lead to problems in a mostly-remote-working environment. After all, human nature hasn’t changed overnight. We are still influenced by people who are punctual, polite and personable.

Our evolutionary choice

This Darwinian explanation of our working behaviour also allows us to make a prediction and even a recommendation. Darwinian logic says that some of us, while working from home, will continue to behave in the same way as we would in an important face-to-face meeting. We’ll be punctual, pay attention and build relationships as well as achieving tasks. The same logic predicts that the business environment – your boss and your colleagues – will favour that behaviour and disfavour those who turn up late, tune out and forget the small talk. Of course, it’s up to you which group you choose to be in.

Article by
Professor Brian D Smith

28th May 2020

From: Healthcare


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