Sports fans are most commonly considered as enthusiastic consumers of their favorite team(s). But it turns out that they offer a helpful model for making sense of Working From Home (WFH).
As a new wave of lockdowns necessitated by COVID-19 has spread across Europe, and with the looming possibility of comparable actions needed in parts of the United States, it’s timely to revisit how employers and employees alike can best adapt to the times.
The most typical model for making sense of WFH has been prior research on remote work and remote workers. But as collaborators and I highlight in a new paper in American Psychologist, the mandatory WFH that we have seen in 2020 is different from the more voluntary arrangements we saw before the pandemic.
In the search for different models, then, we can realize that sports fans have been rooting from home for decades, even though we don’t typically think about it like that.
Indeed, sports fans have increasingly been opting to Root From Home (RFH), as “tele-commuting” options have become increasingly available through high-definition vantage points that rival if not surpass the view from most seats in stadiums. In this sense, it’s similar to how technological advances such as multi-channel videoconferencing platforms have allowed millions of workers to remotely operate.
Of course, there are limits to RFH as a model for WFH. But the analogy offers a fresh set of comparisons to help draw out the various levers and reasons when and why co-located work that we now think about as “synchronous” and “in-person” is important and effective.
If we break down the activity of rooting, it centers around clapping, cheering and otherwise encouraging one’s favored team and, sometimes, making noise to disrupt the other team.
Obviously, as a limit of the model, there is a less direct tie between the fans in stands and the players, coaches and referees collaborating and competing on a field of play.
But fans in stands aren’t just virtually engaging with the games they’re watching. Ample evidence exists of home advantage across sports, with a prominent reason being the influence that fans can have upon referees.
Anticipating the post-COVID-19 workplace, it’s relevant to wonder (using this analogy) whether sports fans will return to stadiums and arenas after the pandemic. It seems like a safe bet that they will and that they won’t likely be doing so with conscious awareness and intent to influence referees. Instead, those who are able will do so for the fun atmosphere. Indeed, the sense of community that is part of that atmosphere – along with the chance to watch people who are great at what they do – is what gets people into the stands.
Employers planning for work after the pandemic would be well-served by considering how their employees might be re-engaged to figuratively root for the home team – in person – when and where it is safe again. While employers can typically compel employees to be in certain places at certain times as a condition of employment, thinking about employees as akin to “season ticket holders” whose commitment needs to be periodically re-engaged seems likely to be healthy for all sides.
At the same time, just as arenas have been getting smaller, it seems likely that company offices are likely to get smaller, with the practice of assigning workers to different locations depending on the day potentially becoming more common.
As organizations sift through which meetings can be emails and which email-threads are better engaged as meetings, it also seems plausible that trips to the workplace might become more comparable to the “event” of attending in-person sporting events.
Kevin Kniffin is a faculty member in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management in the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @KevinKniffin.