Update: The Impact of COVID-19/WFH on Work Habits

We’re now 8 or 9 weeks into social distancing, depending on where you live. For many that means we’re over 2 months into the mass scale work from home experiment. Organizations everywhere are still working to understand and react to the major implications of this change.

I’ve written about how we’re using data from productivity tools to help organizations measure and adapt to this new way of working. Our company, Worklytics, anonymously analyzes data from common productivity tools such as Office365 and GSuite to determine trends in work patterns. We’ve now analyzed these work patterns several weeks since the change, across many organizations, and I wanted to share some of the interesting things we’re finding. What follows are 5 key insights we’ve gathered by analyzing work patterns before and after the shift to WFH.

Our Initial Findings

1. Longer Work Days 

Our data shows that the amount of time between the first and last action of the day seems to have significantly increased, indicating that people are working over a longer period of time. On average, people are beginning their day around 45 minutes earlier, but also are ending their days around 40 minutes later than usual. 

One potential hypothesis behind this is that things like personal matters and childcare are eating into the time of remote workers during the day. As a result, people are working longer hours to create balance or compensate. 

This is also a reminder that one of the challenges of remote work is the blurring of lines between work and personal life. While longer days may drive some short term productivity gains, if continued for extended periods they will likely lead to greater burnout risk and other related issues.

2. More Time Due to No Commute

As noted above, our data shows teams starting work earlier and ending later. What’s particularly interesting though, is that this change is far more pronounced for those who live in cities with long commute times. For people in cities with mega commutes like SF, NYC or London, we’re seeing start and end times as much as 2 hours outside of the norm. The implication here is that the saving in commute time has transferred to more working hours. 

This likely plays out as both a gain in time for productive work and personal time. However, there are certainly significant work-life balance implications to consider. Organizations can help by clearly communicating expectations around work hours and work-life balance and monitoring teams for signs of burnout.

3. More Meetings, Email and Chat

This is probably one of the more predictable trends on this list. Being remote means communication needs to happen over digital channels, so of course, there are a lot more meetings through Zoom and Skype. More conversations are also happening over email and chat tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams. Exactly how this change manifests depends on the company and the tools they already use. For example, an organization with no chat tool is a lot more likely to schedule more meetings. However, if they use Slack, the increase is smaller. Perhaps Slack cuts down on some of the need for coordination meetings.

Another trend is that you’re seeing a lot more smaller, recurring meetings, with one-on-one coordination. Overall, meeting size has dropped by 10-15%. This does make intuitive sense as situations that would normally take place offline (popping into someone’s office for a quick question) now need to be formalized.

The shifting of most, if not all, meetings to digital platforms is an immense change. It’s well-known that many people find it harder to express subtle tones and empathy over digital channels. Physical separation can also make it harder to maintain social connections. As a result, employers need to make sure they are putting in the added effort to keep teams in regular communication.

4. Spike and then Drop in Collaboration

During the first few weeks in the move to work from home we noticed a big spike in the number of people each individual typically collaborates with. Some people’s internal networks as much as doubled in size over this period. 

This serves as a general reminder that both the formal and informal networks (gathering around the water cooler) are moving to digital channels.

One hypothesis is that this is due to the rounding up all the connections that were previously offline-only. Other theories are that it may be the need for greater levels of more formal coordination, now people are remote, or perhaps just people seeking some form of social connection. This serves as a general reminder that both the formal and informal networks (gathering around the water cooler) are moving to digital channels. It’s still important to form and maintain these informal connections, even if they are all remote, so leaders need to ensure they are taking action to encourage them.

Interestingly, in the weeks since this the start of WFH, many organizations are seeing a slow drop off in collaboration from this original peak. Some teams are even seeing collaboration fall to levels lower than before the change. In many cases it seems this is the result of the breadth of people networks decreasing. There is still plenty of interaction between direct team members but now there is less interaction outside of this immediate circle. Our theory here is that as time passes, the impacts of an “out of mind, out of sight” dynamic is playing out. The concern is that over time this may result in more siloed organizations.

Collaboration has generally increased and then return to normal or below pre WFH periods
One interesting insight is that collaboration between different groups, function and levels has fallen in many cases. This indicates people are maintaining connections with their direct teams but collaborating with a narrower set of individuals.

Increase in Interruptions / Difficulty Focusing

We’re seeing a rise in interruptions from email, meetings and chat throughout the day and a decrease in uninterrupted time for individual focused work, since WFH started. This finding is backed by results from a number of employee surveys, gathered during this period, indicating that people are finding it difficult to focus.

This rise in interruptions is to be expected as teams that are suddenly no longer colocated need to spend more time coordinating online. The increased contact is likely beneficial in some ways but also drives up how often people are interrupted and forced to context-switch. For knowledge workers, who need long periods of uninterrupted time to focus, this can be highly detrimental to productivity.

During this new burst in digital collaboration it’s important for organizations to reinforce best practices for digital communication (e.g., avoid reply all on email, minimize recurring meetings, meeting free afternoons) that minimize interruption and allow people to get work done! A lot can also be done to encourage individuals to take control of their own schedules and block focus time to minimize when and how often they are interrupted throughout the day.

Concluding Points

The move to work from home is clearly driving a significant change in work patterns. Organizations need to account for this, and ensure they are proactively reaching out to support teams and managers throughout this process. We will continue to measure and share our new findings and how teams and leaders are learning to adapt so stay tuned for more!

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