What happens when you work from home …. new findings

by Dr. Alan Kadish NMD

The new “typical workday” has us spending lots more time in front of the screen/s in our homes. Welcome to a pandemic, your 4 or more walls and perhaps some pets or others !

Effects:

Microsoft did a fascinating study published in the Harvard Business Review, July, 2020 of how home working is affecting their work force.  The results are that being home has increased the average worktime by ~4hr/week and changed our relationships. Not groundbreaking news to those at home however there’s more.

The results of the 350 person study was that there were , 22% more meetings however, shorter in the 30 minute range vs the longer which decreased by 11%.. If you’re a manger of a team add another 8 hr+ hours to your workweek.  Communication with IM has shifted to more evening hours, with a 52% increase between 6pm -midnight.  And “lunchtime” has us munching and typing at the same time. Weekend time has now blurred more into worktimes. As to the connectiveness, their employees increased the one-on-one meetings by 18% seeking to stay on board and substitute for the missing connection times that would have taken place in person.

The reports of “pajama days” and “meet my pet” meetings went up 10%. Not surprisingly the Chinese workforce when they returned to the office continued to keep both longer work weeks and engaged in more IM’ing.

Spend a minute and think of your workhours. By adding 4hrs more per week that’s a 200 hr/yr increase, for many of us. Would accessibility between 6pm and midnight be acceptable and should you be “on” at those hours ?

Long Term Consequence:

Although it’s laudable to have a large firm such as Microsoft engage in this study, I would suggest that we look further into the effects, both short and long term. We know that extended sittings impact is unequivocally bad for multiple reasons.  Our bodies suffer from increased cardiovascular mortality risk to the widening of our abdomens, back and neck aches and more.

Did you know that on average 39.6% of sedentary adults will sit for 6- 8 hours per day or more and that was in 2015-16, way preCOVID !  How much time do you spend on your bottom. Yes add up all the time including: working, eatting, watching the screen and any other time such as reading a book/kindle/ipad. I’ll bet the 6-8 hours is well exceeded. For more on this subject see our blog on sitting.

Then add the multiple stress factors from not having in person human contact, decreased overall activity, and add the changes in our food choices and times we eat, add in the sleep disruption and you get the picture.

Exercise and breaks:

There is a ton of literature about the issues of movement and exercise and it’s even more essential now than ever before. Our new routines may have some less than great aspects that limit our exercise time. Common sense tells us that our circulatory system needs movement, regularly to work properly. Did you consider a timer or one of the free apps that reminds you to get up ? Consider Streachy as one example, it’s free and works on all OS’s and did I mention it’s easy to get a quick smile from their rap. Or see this article for 5 options: https://www.techrepublic.com/blog/five-apps/five-free-apps-to-help-remind-you-to-take-a-break/

Ergonomics:

Most home offices are far less than well equipped to support you while seated or standing, without modification. To get the correct office “fit”
you may want to start here:  work-from-home-ergonomics-101/ and for those of you wanting a checklist see; etools/computerworkstations/checklist_evaluation.html . As another option, hire a professional as many will have access to proper desks and seating systems, at a discount. Speaking of which have you looked online for a really great chair, plenty of businesses are going out of business.

Your Eyes:

The impact of blue light is well established, from potential retinal cell damage (in mice) to eyestrain and of course the upset in our circadian rhythm. With eyestrain as one of the more frequent occurrences, consider the purchase of blue blocking glasses. The commercially available products vary considerably so take some time and read the claims and don’t hesitate to try and return as appropriate. For some sources consider; FelixGray, Gunnear Eyeware, Spektrum Glasses and there are many on Amazon. I’ve personally tried a few inexpensive options from Amazon and found less eyestrain at the end of the day.

Your mental health:

As the work from home phenomena continues and the increasing likelihood is this will become the norm, what will you do to replace the irreplaceable human contact that used to be daily at work ? The contact through electronic means will never replace the touch or one on one conversation or the interactive meetings. The new norm is to integrate into a quarantine pod. Yes, another new word for our times. To be clear this is a personal choice and should be done with some thought.

For some thoughts on quarantined pods see the NY Times article: /parenting/coronavirus-pod-family.html

Can your children endure without any contact except online with others ? How are you doing without the usual personal contact ? Another option is to see a therapist online. Many are offering these services and they are covered under the current COVID rules for most insurances.

Are you drinking a bit more ? Alcohol consumption is up in Belgium, where sales of alcohol in supermarkets has increased by 10 to 15 percent. I know in speaking with the local stores beverage folks there is little question this is happening in the US as well.

Take Aways:

Move your body regularly: Yes, a walk helps but consider more intensity for exercise. Research is suggesting a combination of both moderate intensity movement and weight work.

Get better ergonomics in your home office and streach regularly.

Don’t work till you drop, there were always be more work than you can do in a day.

Consider a standing desk, however also make certain to move regularly and use an impact pad on the floor. Better yet a squishy pad and you get double duty, impact resistance and exercise (https://www.juststand.org/the-facts/)

Purchase blue light blocking glasses, asap.

       Vary your looking from your screen to the back wall frequently.

Keep the alcohol intake to a minimum.

Get adequate sleep….. kill the screen well before bedtime

Drink non-sweetened fluids throughout the day…. hint…. makes you move and hydrates your body !

Keep in touch with others and find routines that work for you.

Microsoft Analyzed Data on Its Newly Remote Workforce

Teams that don’t communicate. Market disruption. Unidentified logjams. Employee burnout. Lost efficiency. As part of a group of data scientists, management consultants, and engineers at Microsoft, we help companies harness behavioral data to measure and solve these kinds of challenges — the kinds that firms feel but usually cannot see.

Four months ago we realized that our company, like so many others, was undergoing an immediate and unplanned shift to remote work. We all scrambled to set up home offices, situate newly homeschooled kids, juggle customer calls and cat antics, and, in many ways, rethink how to do our jobs.

At the same time, we knew this was a rare, real-time opportunity to learn something about work itself. We wanted to study how flexible and adaptable it might or might not be, how collaboration and networks morph in remote settings, what agility looks like in different spaces. Maybe most important, we wanted to know how to nurture and improve employee well-being during times of crisis.

So, we launched an experiment to measure how the work patterns across our group were changing, using Workplace Analytics, which measures everyday work in Microsoft 365, and anonymous sentiment surveys. We didn’t know what we’d find, but we felt certain that it would help us, our partners, our customers, and other organizations navigate the phases of this shift.

Our research started from a place of deep empathy for our colleagues and great curiosity about their capacity to adapt. We had few hypotheses but many burning questions, such as:

  • How will employees integrate — and separate — work and home life under the same roof?
  • Will we be able to maintain our relationships and networks without our typical face-to-face connections?
  • Will we collaborate differently in order to get our work done?
  • How will managers support and engage fully remote teams?

Because behaviors in a given scenario are responses to a host of factors, there’s no way to predict the impact an unexpected disruption or crisis will have on how people work. This is the value of measuring it in real time: You can truly see how employees — and, as an extension, a company’s culture — react and adapt. The results might come as a surprise, be counterintuitive, or reveal problems to address and positive trends to replicate. We experienced all three.

Uncovering What Has Changed About Work

For this research, we measured collaboration patterns across our 350-person Modern Workplace Transformation team, based largely in the U.S., as well as other groups within Microsoft. We looked weekly at areas such as work-life balance and collaboration by analyzing aggregated, de-identified email, calendar, and IM metadata; comparing it with metadata from a prior time period; and inviting colleagues to share their thoughts and feelings. Often, we were able to find context for the data within the lived experiences of our team. For instance, our research revealed that workdays were lengthening — people were “on” four more hours a week, on average. Our survey shed light on one possible explanation: Employees said they were carving out pockets of personal time to care for children, grab some fresh air or exercise, and walk the dog. To accommodate these breaks, people were likely signing into work earlier and signing off later.

Our findings aren’t all necessarily good or bad; many have given us a nuanced view into how people are adapting to new demands. For example, while Microsoft salespeople have significantly increased their collaboration time with customers, people in our manufacturing group have focused on streamlining and optimizing connection points with a growing number of supplier contacts. Some revelations turned out to be clear bright spots, like the fact that multitasking during meetings didn’t spike even though people weren’t in the same room. Other insights, like signs of blurring work-life boundaries, are indicators we want to learn more about going forward. And we’re still digging into the short- and long-term impact of some of the changes — such as the repurposing of commute time for meetings — on our employees, teams, and organization.

Our most fascinating findings can be grouped into a handful of big themes:

When driven by employees, entrenched norms can change quickly. Measuring collaboration patterns across our 350-person team, we looked at how meetings had changed beyond remote-only attendance. One data point stunned us: the rise of the 30-minute meeting (cue Star Wars music).

While weekly meeting time increased by 10% overall — we could no longer catch up in hallways or by the coffee machine, so we were scheduling more connections — individual meetings actually shrank in duration. We had 22% more meetings of 30 minutes or less and 11% fewer meetings of more than one hour.

This was surprising. In recent decades meetings have generally gotten longer, and research shows it has had a negative effect on employee productivity and happiness. Our flip to shorter meetings had come about organically, not from any management mandate. And according to our sentiment survey, the change was appreciated. Suddenly the specter of an hour-long meeting seemed to demand more scrutiny. (Does it really need to be that long? Is this a wise use of everyone’s time?) This is one of the many ways that the remote-work period could have a long-term impact.

Managers get soaked, but they also carry the life preservers. Through multiple indicators, we learned that managers are bearing the brunt of the shift to remote work. Senior managers are collaborating eight-plus more hours per week. In China, where offices closed weeks earlier than in other countries, and where we measured impacts beyond our 350-person team, our manager colleagues saw Microsoft Teams calls double, from seven hours a week to 14 hours a week. Working to support employees, nurture connections, and manage dispersed teams from home, managers sent 115% more IMs in March, compared with 50% more for individual contributors.

At the same time, managers are enabling employee resilience through this disruption. Employees across our team saw their work hours spike after the shift. But looking at one-on-one meetings, a key connection point in the manager-employee relationship, we found that the employees who averaged the most weekly one-on-one time with their managers experienced the smallest increase in working hours. In short, managers were buffering employees against the negative aspects of the change by helping them prioritize and protect their time.

This data supports consistent themes we heard from our people: “My manager increased the frequency of one-on-ones. They have been a great way to stay aligned and, especially at the beginning, navigate the shift effectively,” one employee reported. “The challenges of this time helped me understand the need to get to know my employees better and focus my efforts on their goals,” said one manager.

It doesn’t take much for workplace culture to start to shift. The data we looked at has allowed us to quantify how the rhythms of the workday have changed across our team. For example, just a few months ago many of us could not have imagined spending our commute time anywhere but in our commute. We were used to meetings concentrated in the mornings, breaks at lunchtime, focused work in the afternoons, and a transition back to our personal lives at the end of each day.

When disruption came calling, we found that flexibility was close behind. Most of our team shifted meetings away from the 8 AM to 11 AM window and toward the 3 PM to 6 PM window. As our days became fragmented (“like Swiss cheese,” one employee put it), with more meetings and personal responsibilities to juggle, we leaned on flexibility. Working in pockets helped, but sometimes we found that job demands rushed in to fill spaces previously reserved for personal downtime:

  • Before the crisis, we typically saw a 25% reduction in instant messaging during the lunch hour, but now that reduction is down to 10%.
  • A new “night shift” has taken root, which employees are using to catch up on work — and not only focused individual work. The share of IMs sent between 6 PM and midnight has increased by 52%.
  • Employees who had well-protected weekends suddenly have blurrier work-life boundaries. The 10% of employees who previously had the least weekend collaboration — less than 10 minutes — saw that amount triple within a month.

Some of the changes we measured might seem inconsequential on their own. But taken together, they reveal a shift in our work culture that was neither intended nor wanted. We will continue to closely monitor these trends.

Human connection matters a lot, and people find a way to get it. We know that belonging is a core human need and that feeling a sense of connection is an intrinsic motivator. This is why work relationships are so important — strong social connections help employees feel happier and healthier and build stronger networks.

On our team, around Microsoft, and across many of our customers’ companies, a trend cropped up very quickly after the shift to remote work: virtual social meetings. Responding to the lack of natural touchpoints — grabbing lunch in the cafeteria, popping by someone’s desk — employees found new ones. In our group, these ranged from group lunches to happy hours with themes such as “pajama day” and “meet my pet.” Overall, social meetings went up 10% in a month.

At the same time, scheduled one-on-ones among employees went up 18%, showing that people would sooner add meetings to their schedules than lose connections.

We also measured networks across more than 90,000 Microsoft employees in the United States. Frankly, we expected to see them shrink significantly, given the rapid shifts in environment, daytime rhythms, and personal responsibilities. Instead, we discovered that most employees maintained their existing connections. Even more encouraging, most people’s network size increased. We had assumed that in a time of crisis, employees might strengthen networks within their own work groups in an insular way. In fact, we saw network growth not only within existing work groups but also across different groups, indicating that to adapt and thrive teams sought to build bridges.

Taking Action in the Months and Years Ahead

Understanding the shifts in people’s behaviors and in business as usual was only the first step. The next one — trickier and equally critical — is to figure out which changes we should actively address and course-correct, even as the ground beneath our organization continues to shift. We’ve heard many of our customers express a desire to focus energy on building innovative, resilient frameworks for the future. Fortunately, we know from research on the “fresh start effect” that now is a perfect time to carefully and deliberately reshape our work culture.

In our experience, organizations and leaders who successfully seed change are those who choose to tackle a small number of challenges, maybe even just one, rather than opening up their whole culture to be reimagined. The challenges they choose tend to be the problematic norms that pose the most risk to employee well-being, business continuity, and customer focus. Within Microsoft and among our customers and partners, we’ve seen groups respond to recent behavioral shifts by normalizing manager one-on-ones to help employees gain clarity and connection, increasing small-group meetings to combat the isolation of remote work, and reducing late-night instant messaging to address burnout. One of our customers is using our data to understand which teams are navigating remote work really well, as part of planning for a possible two-year work-from-home scenario.

Our organization and others within Microsoft are also trying creative tactics to support engagement and productivity and to better integrate work and life. One product engineering team has committed to “Recharge Fridays” — days free of meetings so that employees can focus. As an antidote to the “always on” triage mode of remote work, some teams have been intentional about encouraging employees to use their vacation time to unplug and relax. The thread connecting the most successful of these interventions is that they focus on mindset rather than outcomes. In other words, we asked why people aren’t able to focus, recognized that it’s because free space is too often filled by meetings, and then collectively decided to eliminate meetings on certain days altogether.

As our company and many others plan for what comes next, we’re adjusting the focus of our research to the changes that will be needed to continue supporting organizational health and business continuity. These changes include new processes and policies, tooling and workspaces, collaboration norms, and employee wellness resources. We know the future will be increasingly digital, flexible, and remote-friendly, or even remote-first. And as organizations across the globe shift back to the office, measuring patterns of work against a baseline and keeping an eye on how people adapt will be essential — especially if new waves of disruption bring new unknowns. For example, our colleagues in China, who have already moved large parts of their workforces back to the office, are seeing that some of the habits that emerged during remote work, such as more reliance on instant messaging and longer workweeks, have continued even after the return.

Is work today permanently different from what it was before Covid-19 and the work-from-home shift? We don’t know yet, but the data can give us ongoing, real-time information that we can use to influence what happens next. We believe that what we learn about these changes will be key to organizational resiliency in the months and years to come.The Big Idea

The authors would like to thank Abhinav Singh, Microsoft Workplace Intelligence associate, for contributing to this report.

About the authors: Natalie Singer-Velush is a marketing communications manager and the editor of Microsoft Workplace Insights. She creates thought leadership about people analytics, behavioral science, the future of work, and the power of data to help organizations and people innovate, evolve, and succeed. As a former journalist and an MFA in a sea of MBAs, she thrives on bringing data to life through storytelling. Kevin Sherman is a director on the Workplace Analytics team at Microsoft. He leads a team of experts who apply storytelling, behavioral science, and corporate strategy to product strategy and customer delivery. He’s also been leading Microsoft’s own use of Workplace Analytics since its acquisition of VoloMetrix in 2015. Erik Anderson is a director on Microsoft’s workplace intelligence team. He has spent his career building teams and methods for data-driven problem-solving and transformation, and he currently leads a team that helps customers harness the power of their collaboration data.