Jordan: I’m speaking to you, as you probably know by now, from my home where I also work, where I’ve worked since March. And as I record the intro to today’s podcast, my daughter is going down for her nap upstairs. Unless she doesn’t. Unless she starts screaming. And at that point all have to go and I’ll have to do this later. Of course, there are other things that need to be done later. And so those things will get pushed back and they will push back other things. And so on, and so forth until it’s 6:20 and I’ve still got stuff on my list. Now, raise your hand if this sounds familiar to you. When we discussed the positives and negatives of working from home a couple of months ago on this show, we were relying on research that had been conducted before a global pandemic. And some of that research painted a rosy picture of increased flexibility, increased productivity, increased happiness.
News Clip: People working from home really work their full shift. You know, the office is actually an amazingly noisy environment. So if you hear stories of, you know, the person on the desk next door to me and her boyfriend’s just left her she’s in tears. There’s a cake in the breakout room. Bob’s leaving, come join. Nothing beats being at home with her family. What we found is that we were quite productive working remotely. That’s why at the end of the year, Hudei Idriss won’t be renewing the lease for her office.
Jordan: Now though, we have current research, post pandemic research on what working from home today right now has done to our work days. And if you do happen to be working from home right now, well, get ready to nod along with our guest. And then to maybe sigh and say, okay, but what are we going to do about it? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Jeff Polzer is a professor of human resource management and the organizational behaviour unit at Harvard Business School. Jeff, that’s a long title.
Jeff: Hey Jordan. Yeah, well in academics we like long titles, I guess.
Jordan: Well, why don’t you tell me about the study that you’re one of the lead authors on, because we’ve been working from home, a lot of us, for quite some time now. And it was really nice to get a deeper look at it. So what did that study take into account among who and where? And just how big is it and comprehensive as it?
Jeff: We were interested in this whole remote work, this phenomenon of remote work, even before the pandemic hit. Looking at things like digital transformation, you know, what kinds of people work from home, prefer to work at home, do it productively. So when COVID hit and the world went through kind of the biggest natural work experiment of all time, we shifted into a study that really tried to figure out the effects of these lockdowns on people’s work activities. So with that in mind, we were already working, working, or collaborating with an information technology services provider that licenses, digital communication solutions, like email and calendar applications, to a huge sample of organizations around the world. And we have all of the appropriate data security and privacy protocols in place, to be able to use those data. So when COVID hit, we were able to acquire de-identified aggregated anonymized data on email and meeting patterns for a sample of workers across 16 major cities across North America, Europe, Middle East, representing over 3 million people.
Jeff: We took a slice of time that went from eight weeks pre lockdown to eight weeks post lockdown after identifying for each of these 16 cities, the precise date in which the government mandated a lockdown. And so we used those lockdowns as a way to get some comparability across these metropolitan areas.
Jordan: So as you went into this then, what kind of insights were you hoping to get out of it?
Jeff: Well, I’m sure all of us, and you included, and me, we’ve been hearing so many anecdotes from people about their experiences since COVID, about their work arrangements. You know, some people said, Hey, I love it. I don’t have to commute anymore. It’s fantastic. I can play with my dog all day and I get to go down to the refrigerator anytime I want. Other people were quite the opposite. They’ve got kids at home who are now not in school due to the lockdown. They’re in cramped quarters, they don’t have a good office set up et cetera. And they’re saying, Oh, this is, you know, I really don’t like this. And our question was what what’s going on? When you look at this at scale, like at a really big scale, are we actually seeing big changes in work activities? Or do they do all these kinds of effects kind of average out? And in fact, yeah, there’s a few people with, you know, vivid stories here and there that have changed a lot, but on average things are pretty much like they were before, people are just doing the same thing, but from home.
Jeff: And so we, we, you know, wanted to utilize these data to try to get a macro level answer to some of those questions.
Jordan: So once you had the data, just to kind of set the table before we talk about how our work days have changed, what did you see in the average workday before the pandemic hit? Was it roughly in line with expectations, you know, nine to five, et cetera, et cetera?
Jeff: Yeah, you know, an example would be the average workday span was about 9.8 hours across these 3 million people. Now–
Jordan: Does that include commutes?
Jeff: That does not include commutes.
Jeff: Yeah. And in fact, our measure of workday span is a proxy, it’s an indicator, and it’s a particular type, given the data we had, like any of these. Any study has to use some kind of measure, almost always imperfect. Our measure, what we did was we said, what’s the timestamp of the first email or meeting of the day, and the last email or meeting of the day and use the difference between those as our length of workday. Immediately, I’m sure you’re thinking well, Hey yeah, I log off email and calendar, but I still do some other work at night.
Jordan: That’s exactly what I’m thinking.
Jeff: Yeah. That is not captured by our measures. So, there’s some error in the measurement, maybe we’re understating it. But if you just look at that measure, before in the eight weeks on average before lockdowns across all these people, the average workday was about 9.8 hours. And, you know, we have different– average meeting length was about an hour on average, slightly over an hour. So you can look at different, you know, a lot of these different measures and figure out whether, you know, the pre lockdown metrics kind of resonate. But here’s what I would emphasize though, whatever these averages are, there’s really wide variation. As you might expect.
Jordan: I was just going to say, I’m now opening my Outlook and going back to try to count how many emails I sent yesterday, because I want to see where I fall on this.
Jeff: Yeah. And that’s, you know, believe me, as researchers, we did the same thing. And most people do. But, that’s where we really emphasize caution. It’s an estimate based on a sample of people. So it, you know, it represents these particular people. But we really, you know, we really need to emphasize the range. There are a lot of people that are working, you know, longer days than that in our sample, even. And lots of people who are working shorter days than that. So individual results may vary from one person to another one company to another, et cetera.
Jordan: But broadly speaking then, with that as the baseline, what did you see change when people started working from home?
Jeff: Well, a couple of the, I think most important findings. One is the workday span did increase on average across the three plus million people by 48 minutes. You might be saying, well, that’s not, you know, yeah, I work about an hour more a day now, but it’s not that big a deal. Across 3 million people across the globe, there’s there’s a lot more time being spent in a typical work day, thinking about work and being on email, checking in on your email, sending emails, being in meetings, you know, outside of the normal working hours.
Jordan: Well, that’s kind of what I struggle with. Because if I had to answer this question, and obviously you’d just be doing it by looking at the figures in my email, but, you know, I would say that I probably work more, but it’s because I’m stopping and starting throughout the day, because we have a toddler at home and, you know, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t know if I’m actually working more or if the interruptions have just pushed the time stamp on my last email further back, you know?
Jeff: Absolutely. And that’s something we don’t know. Maybe people are taking, you know, are having lunch with their families and dinner with their families in ways that they didn’t before, when they were at the office. Really granular data on people’s workdays, are really hard to get. I’ve got colleagues over doing ethnographies for example, you can shadow people. You can certainly ask people on a survey, but then it’s pretty hard to do that with 3 million people. I want to be clear about the reason, you know, to describe this measure really carefully is because we don’t know what’s happening during the day. We can say the length of first email or meeting to last email or meeting has increased, but we don’t have information in this particular study on what’s going on between those. And by the way, some of it might be, you know, during the day people do personal things. And now, because they’re at home, they can do lots more of those very readily there. The blocks of time when you’re working may be different as well, in terms of, you know, are there blocks of focused time where you can consciously trade on the individual work?
Jeff: Is your day riddled with meeting after meeting, email after email? And so how people break up the time in their day is something that certainly we’re interested in understanding more, but we may need further research, complemented with different methods, along with some of the digital data that we’re able to access to really look into that.
Jordan: What about the sheer volume then? If we’re spending more time, you know, are you also seeing more meetings, more emails, et cetera?
Jeff: The other findings that we think were most interesting were on meetings. There are a couple of patterns that stood out to us. One is yes, there are more meetings post-lockdown. Those meetings have more people in them. But those meetings are also on average shorter. The overall pattern of meeting activity has changed and those changes have stayed in place for the most part across the eight weeks, all the way to the end of our time window across the eight weeks post lockdown that we have, those patterns changed right around the lockdown, and then they stayed in place. The total amount of time people in aggregate are spending in meetings has gone down.
Jeff: Yeah. And it’s really driven by the shorter, or the fact that meetings are shorter. So even though there’s more of them and they’re bigger, because on average they’re shorter, this total amount of time spent in meetings has actually decreased. That was one of the biggest surprises in the study.
Jordan: As someone who studies human resources then, when you see findings like that, what are the implications to you?
Jeff: You know, the big question is, is this good or bad?
Jordan: Yeah. I was trying to ask it in a very scientific way.
Jeff: Exactly, exactly. But you know, I think it’s a mixed, you know, a mixed set of implications. And there’s lots of nuance, and again, lots of variation. But think about a couple of things. One is, are shorter meetings good? I think so.
Jeff: Yeah, exactly. There’s this, even before COVID we were studying this idea of collaboration overload. Too many meetings, meetings that are too long, too much email. You know, we spend so much time in meetings and on email that we don’t get that concentrated effort on kind of the deep work that we need to do. So, you know, in that context, are shorter, you know, are there a lot of meetings that are probably too long to begin with? You know, this just is purely my intuition, you know, and based on talking to lots of people across different industries, but I think that’s something that, you know, that could be good if we keep that. Are there too many meetings? I don’t know. Partly, you know, a lot of these meetings, you know, why are there more meetings? One reason is because they’re replacing in person informal interaction in the hallway that we used to be able to take care of things at the, you know, in the office, just by running into people or–
Jordan: Yeah, just walking by a person’s desk and saying hey.
Jeff: Absolutely. Or you go to the cafeteria and you see three different people and you talk to them and resolve little things, and now you don’t need to meet with them. You know, and that’s fantastic. Now, maybe in order to resolve those things, maybe you can do it through chat or phone or email, but you know, maybe to get somebody’s attention and to really have a discussion, you need to schedule it now. So you know, that could be the case. It’s also that there are a whole host of new issues, you know, we’re living in a pandemic. How do we react to it? What about our customers? What about our hiring? And there’s all these decisions that are up in the air because of the pandemic. And that might cause us to need to meet more often. So, you know, I think there’s been a lot out of reactivity by necessity in organizations because of the pandemic. And as things start to play out, a big question will be whether people become more thoughtful and purposeful about how much they meet and how long those meetings are, and you know, which type of communication media they use for what type of decisions. So much of our daily life is driven by habits and patterns and cultural norms that are just kind of in place and we don’t really think about them that much. I think for sure it would be good if the pandemic causes people to rethink their priorities and how they’re accomplishing those priorities. And maybe the pandemic, you know, will have a silver lining that it will cause more alignment around those kinds of things.
Jordan: Well, that’s kind of the last area that I wanted to pick your brain about. And this is less about the study itself, and probably more about just the work that you do in general, and I think it was about six weeks ago, you know, as we were settling into this, We did an episode about working from home. And we spoke to someone who had done a study in China, but well before the pandemic, just about whether or not employees working from home are more productive. And study found that yes, in fact, they really were and most employees preferred it. But how does that compare with working from home during a pandemic? And how would you go about measuring that now, when, you know, everybody’s life is so different as we we’ve been discussing?
Jeff: It’s a great question. And one that– in fact, those types of studies that you referred to about working from home before the pandemic, that was one of the reasons we wanted to get some of these measures now. If you think about those studies, which, you know, some of them that I’m aware of were very well done. But the people that are working from home tend to it’d be those who prefer to work or who are raising their hand and signing up when the company says, you know, who would like to work from home? We were instituting a new program, a work from home program, who wants to sign up for it? It’s the set of people at the firm who say, Hey, I’d love that. I’ve got a good home office. You know, my kids are at school or I don’t have kids. You know, whatever it is, the conditions are conducive to being productive at home. I’ve got a long commute. It’d be great not to do that. So even with the careful designs that’s some of those studies put into place, it’s still a set of people who, to some extent are choosing to work at home. And so when they find that they’re more productive than they were at the office, that’s fantastic. And there might be lots of people at other companies who would also choose to work at home, and the companies should consider that. But this was fundamentally different. Yes, you had a set of people that were delighted to now be able to work from home. But you had a whole lot of people who had no choice. And everyone was forced to go home immediately, you know, in a very rapid amount of time, set up, and start working from home. So, you know, I think some of the variation that we see in our data reflects the variation of people’s home situations in their preference, you know, for where they might work. And if you’re in a company and some people are working from home and some are at the office, it can potentially kind of create this divide. You know, and it’s like, okay, we’re having a meeting. Do we need to have the video conference set up? Well, yeah. Cause you know, Jordan’s working at home today. So if we want him in the meeting, we gotta have it, you know, get the screen set up. This was also different than that because everyone was working from home, companies really had to rethink the way they were operating and there was none of this, you know, kind of like us versus them, those who work from home versus those of us who are still stuck at the office. That kind of thing isn’t in place anymore. So this really was a different– it became really hard to compare the results now to some of those previous studies.
Jordan: That’s fair. One of the things that was happening at our office before this happened, is because we work as a media organization we have team members from around the country working at different radio stations and wherever. On some of our larger meetings, as opposed to having the video conferencing up and our big office meeting place, we would just do video conferencing to sort of eliminate that two tier system that you just mentioned, like as a proactive way to not feel like, well, these people can just chat cause they’re in a room and these folks just have to wait on the call.
Jeff: I like that idea personally. And I think that’s one thing we could see change once office has open back up and some people come back, is that now everyone is starting to become accustomed to video conferencing. And you know, there are norms around how to do it well. It’s like, remember to unmute yourself and raise your hand, you know whatever the norms are. Now we have norms around how to do this video conferencing thing.
Jordan: And there’s no stigma anymore.
Jeff: And there’s no stigma at all. And in fact, you know, that also applies to like, Oh my kid just ran through the background, you know, of my office. And, you know, it used to be a big deal. And now it’s–
Jordan: Now that’s the best part of the call.
Jeff: Now that’s the best part of the call and it’s no big deal. I mean, one of my personal questions is what about the formality of our wardrobes. I love not dressing up at all.
Jordan: I’m wearing a Hawaiian shirt right now as I talk to you, for the record.
Jeff: Exactly. And it’s not that no one ever did that before. It’s that when someone wore a Hawaiian shirt before, that was a big deal. So I think that could, you know, the video calls can be much more normalized, improve efficiency in a lot of ways, still be pretty effective, cause now we have new norms about how to do them well, and people are comfortable doing them, and eliminating these divides between, okay, we’re the ones at headquarters, all sitting together, and the rest of you are, you know, out there somewhere, but kind of second class citizens.
Jordan: Well, my last question is somewhat related to that, is just how much of these practices are companies likely to keep? And how many of them will just push for a return to normal? You know, knock on wood obviously we get a vaccine and a return to normal is possible. Are companies that either you talk to in the course of doing this study or other companies really digging in to see what’s productive about this that they can keep? And like will policies change or will it just be more of an informal thing?
Jeff: I think we’re going to see the full range of responses. Some companies already have announced that this work from home practice is going to be permanent. They’re not planning to come back, you know, or to require employees to come back to the office. Other companies can’t wait to get people back into the office, and it’s just a matter of making sure it’s safe to do so. You know, but the dynamics are going to play out in the sense that people who– to the extent that people get used to working from home and they like it and they don’t have to commute, or maybe even they can move to a different city with a different cost of living, et cetera. And they’re talented, you know, this question of being able to work together from anywhere has lots of advantages for lots of people, and for companies who can make that work. It’s often, in fact, easier to measure some of the more immediate, tangible work that’s being done, although that’s still hard, than it is to measure, like, what is the benefit of being able to run into people at the cafeteria?
Jordan: Right. I miss that.
Jeff: Yeah. And you know, for a lot of us, it’s fun. You know, it can be motivating. It can be energizing. It also, by the way, even if I run into somebody at work who I know, we get to say hi, chat about, you know, whatever’s going on that day, and we’re not doing any work together. You say, Oh, well there’s no immediate work benefit. But what can happen is that the connectivity across the organization keeps growing through little interactions like that. So three months from now, when I’m working on something and say, Hey, I need to ask somebody in finance about this question. I’m like, Hey, I know, I’ll talk to so and so who I now have a relationship with through, you know, the fact that we run into each other at lunch. So that, that connectivity, it can be hard to quantify those benefits. But there’s a sense, there’s lots of intuition out there, and a lot of it probably right, that that matters for our ability to execute our current work, to be creative and innovative as we go forward, and to be adaptable in order to face new challenges. So, you know, there are these countervailing forces of all sorts, and that’s why it’s complicated. And that’s why I think there’s no, you know, convergence right now, and here is the answer to this issue. So we’ll see. We’ll see how it plays out at different organizations and try to do the best we can to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Jordan: Well, maybe we’ll talk about this again down the line, and we’ll see if we’re calling office to office, or home to home. Thanks, Jeff.
Jeff: Thanks so much, Jordan, it was a pleasure to talk to you. And keep wearing those Hawaiian shirts.
Jordan: Jeff Polzer of Harvard Business School. That was The Big Story, recorded from home as always. Now, if you would like more, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. You can email us. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find us in any podcast app you choose. If it lets you, leave us a rating, leave us a review. We read every one. As you know, I should start reading them out because you guys have left so many good reviews. We really appreciate it. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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