As I mentioned last week, I am down with COVID and tired, so spending more time reading rather than working. I read Bill Browder's Freezing Order this weekend, and I highly recommend it. However, at the end of the book, Browder says that oligarchs, autocrats, and...
Well, we have been working from home now for nearly five months and probably will continue to do so for another year.
So what is the verdict?
The Good News
Many leaders anticipated that employee performance would significantly deteriorate. Given that numerous studies over the years had shown that falls in productivity accompanied a significant change, their expectations were not unfounded. However, a Harvard Business School survey indicated that workers adjusted to working virtually far quicker than expected. In many cases, workers felt they were as productive as they were before. According to one employee, “I’m able to get everything accomplished just like before, and I think everyone else is finding they can too.” This quick return to productivity is remarkable.
Not to say the changes didn’t cause problems. Job satisfaction and engagement fell sharply after two weeks of working virtually. However, by the end of the second month, both measures had recovered dramatically. As another employee put it, “It took some time to get used to it and for things to go right. It was a learning process.”
The improvements in satisfaction and engagement resulted from organizations finding the right balance between meeting and work time. There were issues with too many virtual meetings, leaving no time to do the actual work. Also, people had to get comfortable with communicating over Zoom, Skype, Teams, etc.
The biggest issue was figuring out how to manage work-life balance, basically turning off work at home. According to research, managers who cannot “see” their direct reports often struggle to trust that their employees are working. With such doubts, managers sometimes start to develop the unreasonable expectations that team members be available at all times, ultimately disrupting their work-home balance and causing more job stress.
Data provided by Humanyze from email, chat, and calendar systems across a global technology company supported the HBR survey results. The data revealed that the workday significantly increased at the beginning of all-virtual work. Immediately after the lockdown began, about 50% of employees could maintain at workday of 10 hours or less, compared to 80% pre-COVID. While workday time has started to trend back to pre-lockdown levels, workdays are still 10% to 20% longer on average.
Furthermore, since all-virtual work began, employee stress, negative emotions, and task-related conflict have all been steadily falling; each is down at least 10%. Also, employees have experienced an approximately 10% improvement in self-efficacy and their capacity to pay attention to their work. Employees now say they are “falling into a consistent routine,” “forming a pattern [of work time and breaks] with my coworkers,” and “learning what makes me the most productive and how I can best manage my time and energy.”
From CEOs down, many saw benefits from working from home, including a reduction in travel. One CEO hoped that this had put an end to the ‘fly across the country for a one-hour meeting’ expectation forever.” Overall employees reported that they had:
- More focus time
- Shorter meetings
- More flexible time with family; and
- No loss over missing the daily commute.
Challenges for Managers
While the research has shown an increase in the workday and performance returning or above pre lockdown levels, not all management attitudes reflect this. Different HBR research suggested that of managers:
- 56% are not confident in their ability to manage remotely. Their beliefs about remote employees’ performance reflect their lack of confidence in their ability to manage their reports.
- 60% agreed or were uncertain that remote workers usually perform worse than those who work in an office.
- 58% questioned whether remote workers could remain motivated over time.
The research further shows that:
- Men are more likely to have negative attitudes to remote working and mistrust their own employees’ competence.
- Those in non-managerial/non-professional roles had lower self-efficacy for managing remote workers, more negative attitudes, and greater mistrust.
- Younger managers are more likely to lack self-efficacy for leading remote workers.
With COVID, many employees are facing increased stress, especially for those with compromised finances or families requiring care. Thus some are struggling to perform at their pre lockdown levels. The concern is that this will create a negative feedback loop in which manager mistrust leads to micromanagement, which then leads to drops in employee motivation, further impairing productivity.
Therefore, managers at all levels need support and training, so that management quality will improve, which will improve remote workers’ wellbeing and performance. This support for managers must be a critical focus of senior leadership if employee performance is to remain high as companies move forward with possibly another year of work from home.
What Else Could Go Wrong
With Google now saying that employees can remain virtual till summer 2021 and others following suit, should we all go virtual were we can?
A key issue with a virtual workforce is the loss of unplanned interactions that lead to significant outcomes. In physical offices, people who don’t usually work with each other to connect accidentally, and that interaction sparks new ideas. While the HBR study found employees increased their communication with close collaborators by 40%, contact with other colleagues fell by 10%. Also there less schmoozing and small talk among virtual workers, which has shown to lead to lower levels of trust.
In addition to a lack of spontaneity, three other issues face organizations in a virtual world that undermine organizational health.
Onboarding new employees
Research has shown that great onboarding involves two sets of activities:
- Exposing new employees to “how things are done around here” by indoctrinating them into the company’s vision, history, processes, and culture; and
- Allowing them to apply their signature strengths and express their genuine selves.
While the first has been adapted relatively well to a virtual world, the second is much harder. To achieve the second requires numerous in-depth interactions, and existing employees are accustomed to having those in person.
These are the shallow or peripheral relationships among members of an organization who don’t work closely with each other but have nonetheless connected over time. Weak ties play an important role in organizational performance, including innovation, raising or maintaining product and service quality, and attaining project milestones. If people cannot interact face to face and just connecting through Zoom and document sharing, weak ties are under threat.
It is hard to foster relationships in a virtual environment outside your direct team. Furthermore, with everyone working from home, companies are finding more-limited value in rotational programs, cohort-based training programs, or even cross-functional staffing assignments. While the return from such programs is hard to identify at present, it is an investment that has a significant ROI in the long term. Long-term relationships that once sprang from such shared experiences are undoubtedly at risk and weaken the organization.
What Happens as Some Return
A possible reason identified for the continued performance of virtual employees is that everyone experienced simultaneously, while in prior studies, only some had been working from home. If this is right, then the problem may return when office work resumes.
Presently, those who have returned to the office are a minority, comprising those who find it most challenging to work at home. However, as more people go back to the office for various reasons, those who remain at home may start to feel isolated, affecting performance.
A key reason for employees to return is paranoia. The pandemic has helped managers identity those who are indispensable and who are not. For those deemed non-indispensable, there is the concern that lack of sight will result in termination or offers of early retirement. As more people reason the same way, the pressures to return will grow. Once those back at work reaches a critical mass, the rest may be obliged to follow suit.
For the moment, it is waiting and see.
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