Working From Home – What Have We Learned?

Working From Home – What Have We Learned?

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. 

 

Work-Life Balance

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.

Weak Ties
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.

Fostering relationships
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.

Recent Posts

Do You Truly Know Your Core Customer?

Do You Truly Know Your Core Customer?

Knowing the profit of your core customers is key to building a growth model. Many companies have identified core customers that are generating a sub-optimal profit and so they cannot realize the profits they seek. Identifying the correct core customer allows you to generate profits and often operate in “Blue Ocean.”

The Greatest Own Goal or the Greatest Collapse

The Greatest Own Goal or the Greatest Collapse

The European Super League collapsed within days of launch due to hubris and the founder forgetting the key parts of their business model, value creation, sales, and value delivery. The collapse might bring a high price.

Does Your Financial Model Drive Growth?

Does Your Financial Model Drive Growth?

Working with many companies looking to grow, I am always surprised how many have not built a financial model that drives growth. I have mentioned before a financial model that drives growth? Here I am basing on Jim Collin's Profit/X, which he laid out in Good to...

COVID = Caught Inside

COVID = Caught Inside

As we emerge from COVID, the current employment environment makes me think of a surfing concept: “Being Caught Inside When a Big Set Comes Through.” Basically, the phrase refers to when you paddle like crazy to escape the crash of one wave, only to find that the next wave in the set is even bigger—and you’re exhausted. 2020 was the first wave, leaving us tired and low. But looking forward, there are major challenges looming on the horizon as business picks up in 2021. You are already asking a lot of your employees, who are working flat out and dealing with stress until you are able to hire more. But everyone is looking for employees right now, and hiring and retention for your organization is growing more difficult.

Why is there not MORE common sense

Why is there not MORE common sense

“Why don’t they use common sense?!” You may have said this phrase yourself, or heard it with your managers, when discussing an employee’s actions. However, the frustrated appeal to “common sense” doesn’t actually make any meaningful change in your organization. We all make decisions based on the information we have and the guides we have to use. So if the wrong decisions are being made in your organization, it’s time to examine the tools you give decision-makers.

Do You Understand Your Costs to Ensure Profitability?

Do You Understand Your Costs to Ensure Profitability?

You can only determine profitability when you know your costs. I’ve discussed before that you should price according to value, not hours. However, you still need to know your costs to understand the minimum pricing and how it is performing. Do you consider each jobs’ profitability when you price new jobs? Do you know what you should be charging to ensure you hit your profit targets? These discussions about a company’s profitability, and what measure drives profit, are critical for your organization.

Sunk Costs Are Just That, Sunk!

Sunk Costs Are Just That, Sunk!

If you were starting your business today, what would you do differently? This thought-provoking question is a valuable exercise, especially when it brings up the idea of “sunk costs” and how they limit us. A sunk cost is a payment or investment that has already been made. Since it is unrecoverable no matter what, a sunk cost shouldn’t be factored into any future decisions. However, we’re all familiar with the sunk cost fallacy: behavior driven by a past expenditure that isn’t recoupable, regardless of future actions.

Do You REALLY Know Your Business Model?

Do You REALLY Know Your Business Model?

Bringing clarity to your organization is a common theme on The Disruption! blog. Defining your business model is a worthwhile exercise for any leadership team. But how do you even begin to bring clarity into your operations? If you’re looking for a place to start, Josh Kaufman’s “Five Parts of Every Business” offers an excellent framework. Kaufman defines five parts of every business model that all flow into the next, breaking it down into Value Creation, Marketing, Sales, Value Delivery, and Finance.