The idea that society might benefit from more people working from home has been around for decades. For example, in the early 2000s, BT Group involved 70,000 employees in its Workstyle Project with impressive results. Thanks to COVID-19 these experiments have now moved into mainstream practice, with most workers thrust into a virtual working environment almost overnight.
A new rhythm of work has quickly emerged, and it has been remarkably easy to transfer most activities – meetings, classes, job interviews – online. But there are plenty of concerns as well: some activities don’t work well in a virtual setting; some managers are concerned about their employees shirking, or working on the wrong priorities; and there are huge challenges in maintaining a strong culture if people rarely meet face to face.
We collected some systematic evidence to understand how our day-to-day work patterns have changed. We had conducted a study back in 2013 looking at how knowledge workers prioritise their time. We replicated this study in May 2020, using the same methodology, the same questions and even some of the same subjects, and we compared the findings.
Here, we report on some of the key insights from this analysis, and we highlight some of the opportunities and challenges that arise.
Rather than ask people about their general reflections on their work, we asked them to open their Outlook Calendar and go to a day from the previous week that was typical of their working life. We then asked them to list between 6 and 10 discrete activities during that day, such as a meeting or a period of time responding to emails. The interviewer asked the respondent to describe briefly what the activity involved, how long it lasted and who else was involved, then there were questions about such things as why they did that activity and how valuable it was.
In the 2013 survey we gathered data on 329 specific activities undertaken by 45 knowledge workers. In the 2020 survey, we gathered data on 264 activities from 40 individuals. The individuals were selected randomly, subject to a few specific criteria: (a) at least five years fulltime work experience, (b) at least a bachelor’s degree, (c) working in a knowledge-based role where effectiveness is determined by the use of brainpower and the capacity to make sound judgments. Information about the age, sector, experience of the respondents is available from the authors.
We asked respondents to chunk out their work into six categories: desk-based work (writing, reading, emails, all done alone), external-facing work (interacting with anyone outside the company), managing down (interacting with subordinates), managing across (interacting with peers and colleagues), managing up (interacting with the boss or someone else senior), and training and development.
Here’s what we found: In 2013, respondents spent two-thirds of their time on desk-based work and managing across. In 2020, the amount of time managing across went down significantly, from 38% to 22% of the time, with increases in external-facing work and learning and development (eg attending webinars online).
To shed further light, we split the respondents into “individual contributors” who focus on their own work and “line managers” who are trying to get work done through others, as well as having their own tasks. There were dramatic differences between these two groups, with line managers spending lots of time on external activities and managing across and down, while individual contributors spend more than half their time on desk-based work.
Interestingly, the activities of individual contributors didn’t change that much in lockdown (especially as learning and development was desk-based). Rather, it is the change in priorities among line managers – more external-facing work and managing down at the expense of managing across – that drives the overall result.
Our takeaway from this analysis is that lockdown has helped line managers to prioritise their work more effectively. They still need to get through emails and report-writing. But they are significantly less likely to get drawn into large meetings, which leaves them more time for external-facing work and for supporting their subordinates, which most people would argue is a good thing.
While knowledge workers usually have a written job description, they are expected to take responsibility for prioritising the work that needs doing according to their own judgement. And they will often take on activities that go beyond their formal role if it appears sensible to do so.
We asked respondents to explain why they did each activity, the choices being: (a) It is a standard part of my job and/or my boss asked me to do it, (b) a peer or colleague asked me to do it, (c) I found time to do it because I thought it was important, and (d) I did it spontaneously.
Looking across all respondents, the big difference between 2013 and 2020 is that people are doing fewer activities because they were asked to by a peer or colleague, and significantly more of their own volition – either because they thought it was important (25% rising to 35%) or spontaneously (3% to 6%).
Breaking this analysis down by role, there were no significant differences for line managers. However, there is a huge change in how individual contributors see their work – with the percentage of activities deemed to be a ‘standard part of the job’ decreasing from 71% to 48%. Given that the actual work done by individual contributors didn’t change that much, the shift in mindset here is fascinating – it suggests a greater level of ownership on their part during lockdown.
What’s going on here?
Working from home, especially for individual contributors, provides a bit more breathing space – they don’t have colleagues or a boss badgering them, and they get drawn into fewer meetings by force of habit, just because they happen to be around. As a result, they feel a higher level of control over their own work schedule, which is largely a good thing.
Finally, we asked respondents how worthwhile their work is – for their company, and for themselves. The differences are striking. In 2013, 57% of activities were deemed essential or important (with the other 43% discretionary or unimportant), rising to 78% under lockdown. In terms of personal utility, respondents said 73% of activities in 2013 were neutral or enjoyable (with the other 27% somewhat or very tiresome), rising to 88% under lockdown. Both individual contributors and line managers responded in similar ways, though the differences were bigger for individual contributors.
We looked at the breakdown by individual activities here as well, with some useful additional insights. Consider for example the desk-based work of individual contributors: the amount that was deemed tiresome dropped from 50% to 16% under lockdown, and the amount that was deemed discretionary or unimportant dropped from 40% to 13%. Similarly line managers rated pretty much everything more important under lockdown. For example, 64% of their ‘managing down’ activities were important in 2013, whereas 94% were in 2020. External-facing work shifted from 47% important in 2013 to 89% in 2020.
Our interpretation of these findings? In part, people have genuinely reprioritised their activities, and have stopped doing certain things to make for other, more important, activities. In part, because there is a bit less direction from above when working from home, people are taking greater ownership, and through a process of self-justification they evaluate the work they do as more important and more interesting. But whatever the underlying logic, the net result is a higher level of intrinsic motivation, which for knowledge workers is a very positive change.
There is a good news story here. During lockdown knowledge workers put their effort into more worthwhile activities and it increased their sense of ownership of what they were doing. Even as lockdown eases, and companies move to a mix of office- and home-based work, there is a good chance these new patterns of behaviour and this shift of mindset will endure.
But there are some important caveats. The May 2020 period when we collected the data was a particularly anxious time, and it is well recognised that people tend to work harder and in a more focused way during such periods. We might expect some of these ratings to drop back once the worst of the crisis is over, though not all the way back to the 2013 levels.
More broadly, while this study highlighted the positive aspects of lockdown for knowledge workers, there are also some negatives. Our interviews with a number of the respondents suggested several challenges to virtual working that need careful attention.
First, many managers are worried about their employees slacking off when working from home. Of course, this isn’t what our data says, but it seems entirely plausible some people are enjoying their newly-found autonomy a bit too much. So what’s the solution? While it’s possible to monitor people remotely using technology, a better way forward, especially with knowledge workers, is to focus on outputs, not inputs.
Consider the example set by Siemens, which in July announced that it will allow all its 385,000 employees around the world 2-3 days virtual working every week. Deputy CEO Roland Busch tweeted that this new working model “will also be associated with a different leadership style, one that focuses on outcomes rather than on time spent at the office.”
Second, while most work activities are possible over Zoom, some don’t work quite so well. Brainstorming exercises, informal getting-to-know-you meetings, and difficult conversations are just some of the activities where being in the same room as the people you are talking to is helpful.
On-the-job training is also a challenge – people learn by observing, trying things out, and getting feedback, and again Zoom calls are not conducive to this type of interactivity. There is no simple way forward here – managers have to be alert to these challenges and put in the extra effort where needed.
Finally, there are real concerns over how to develop and sustain organisational culture in a virtual workplace. Culture is “the way we do things around here” and it is shaped through visible artefacts, informal conversations, celebrations and rituals, none of which function well over Zoom. In the short term this isn’t a big deal, but if virtual working becomes a steady-state norm, it also needs active management.
Bringing people into the office one or two days a week, and using that time to emphasise activities that don’t work over Zoom, is a smart way forward. We don’t want to lose the productivity benefits of working from home, but neither do we want to drive out the social qualities of a vibrant workplace.