Contrary to what many experts believed when the great global “work from home” experiment was suddenly unleashed upon us in 2020; six months on, it does not seem like we have arrived at the Shangri-La of telecommuting and flexible work. Many thought that having saved so many hours from long commutes to work, we would finally now have free time for all the things we have always wanted to do.
Surprisingly, the reverse seems to be true. Evidence suggests we are working more at home compared to when we were in the office!
One study by the National Bureau of Economic Research which analyzed 3.14 million users from 21,000 companies, found that meetings went up 12.9% and the average workday went up by 48.5 minutes. Microsoft found that in one group, three times as many of their employees are now working on weekends!
Why are we working more at home?
One of the reasons being cited for this increase is that most people have nowhere to go, and being stuck at home, they just end up working more. Others have blamed their newly accessible home office, which they pass umpteen times a day, and just cannot help a cursory ‘check’ on the email, which somehow turns into hours of work, and less overall downtime. The fragile job market has also put additional pressure on workers to spend more time at work and continuously show their value, lest they be part of any planned layoffs.
Stress and Focus
The truth is, this increase in work hours – together with the stress related to the pandemic – has large swaths of the employee base feeling burnt out. The anxiety is compounded when you consider that many of those working from home, are also educating their children, while simultaneously trying to keep their kids tethered to their homes and prevent them from getting infected.
We are all struggling with focus too. In laboratory experiments, there is evidence suggesting that being frequently interrupted, can have an impact on the quality of work. It takes 20 minutes for a normal person to refocus on the task after an interruption. And, due to the pandemic, we are all juggling many more tasks.
Many employers are seeing a noticeable and concerning rise in stress levels in their employees and have already started making adjustments to help. Goldman Sachs added 10 extra days of family leave. Microsoft added 12 weeks of parental leave and Starbucks employees now have 20 free therapy sessions. Meditation apps like Calm and Journey are now part of the employee benefits that companies are offering so that their workers can destress. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) does mandate enhanced employee rights for paid leave, but one estimate suggests that only 17% of private sector employees are covered.
Microsoft conducted what amounts to a deep dive into how a 350-person Microsoft team in the USA adapted and performed under the pandemic’s remote work conditions. Some of their findings:
- 22% more meetings of 30 minutes or less and 11% fewer meetings of more than an hour. So, more frequent shorter meetings and this occurred organically, without any mandates from management.
- Interestingly, meetings also moved from the morning 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. window to the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. afternoon window. Pre-pandemic, meetings were earlier in the day, and focused work was being done in the afternoons. Post-pandemic, it was reversed.
- Managers spent 115% more time on instant messages, ostensibly to have increased touch points with their teams in lieu of hallway conversations and informal office gatherings. Many managers increased their one-on-ones with their staff too.
- The pre-pandemic fall-off in communications during lunch hours, was also reduced. Post pandemic more people worked over lunch while at home.
- Due to the increase in meetings, one team decided to make Fridays meetings free and designated it “Recharge Fridays” as an antidote to the always-on model that seemed to be burning out employees.
- Microsoft has also seen that in countries where their workforce is slowly returning to the office, these post pandemic changes in behavior, have survived.
- It appears there is a new normal, regardless of where you work.
The “work from anywhere” trend
With technology and collaboration tools for remote employees in place, companies are not seeing a productivity decline, and hence many are now moving permanently to a “work from anywhere” mode. Siemens just announced that 140,000 of its employees can now work from anywhere, as did Twitter, Shopify, Atlassian, Tanium, Coinbase, and many others. Facebook CEO, Zuckerberg thinks that as many as 50% of Facebook’s staff of 52,000 could be working remote soon. In fact, these trends are so strong that rents in San Francisco, one of the more expensive cities in the world, are falling as tech companies are moving to a dispersed home based workforce.
Paul McDonald, senior executive director at staffing firm Robert Half International says that by expanding the geography, “You are able to tap into a pool of candidates that’s greater than what the company may have looked at before.” A distinct advantage for some companies. Glassdoor, the job posting site, says its remote job openings are up 28.3% from a year ago, even while overall listings are down 23%.
However, it would be wrong to think that working from home is a panacea. Many employees feel a sense of isolation, they must deal with many distractions at home, and many have difficulty maintaining working relationships with their colleagues.
It is not just employers who may be taking advantage of the new work from anywhere paradigm. Consider the story of enterprising “Bob”, a software developer, who being a remote worker, outsourced his own job to China,and paid someone a portion of his salary to do 100% of the work, while he spent his own time at home watching cat videos!
If you can do your job from anywhere, can anyone do your job, without your employer noticing? This is occurring more frequently than you might think. It may take a while for the dust to settle on this experiment.