COVID Insights, Perspectives 10.20.2020

AT HOME: What Happened When We Shifted to WFH (and What We Can Learn)

Research Analyst Dr. Erika Eitland kicks off a series examining the findings from our survey of employees working from home.

An opportunity for insight

Nearly eight months after shifting to WFH, after innumerable video calls at home in our bedroom slippers, it’s almost hard to recall our former work lives: chatting with coworkers in line for coffee, meetings both planned and spontaneous, the continual office buzz—a drum beat of calls and collaboration afoot.

COVID-19 has changed more than where we meet people or what we wear to meetings. Societal shifts, from additional caretaking responsibilities, to mental health epidemics, and home working fatigue, have all added significant complexity to our workdays.

 

Last spring, after the dust settled a bit, we saw a unique opportunity to leverage a data-driven approach to capture meaningful insights from this massive pivot. Our Human Experience (Hx) Lab and London studio Workplace Strategy partnered to develop and issue Adaptation & Transition to Home Offices: Measurement & Evaluation (AT HOME), an online survey to our 2,000-plus colleagues located in 25 offices across six continents. The aim was to understand how working from home during the pandemic has affected employees’ well-being and effectiveness—and then determine how those insights can shape our future approach to workplace.

We heard from 75 percent of employees, and the breadth of responses allowed us to assess the impacts of the pandemic across demographics, stages of life and career progression, as well as geographical and cultural norms.  To validate our insights, we ran similar assessments with clients working in financial and professional services.

We learned there are silver linings

Much has been made about how WFH altered our regular work routines, but the shifts weren’t all negative. We found that environmental comfort and the ability to balance non-work-related commitments improved significantly since WFH. Respondents reported the highest improvement in task effectiveness for duties that required visual and auditory privacy, such as phone calls, reading, and writing.

While individual focused tasks were identified as best suited for home, collaborative and more creative tasks such as ideation and charettes are best suited for the office. These findings don’t just shed light on our current moment; they bring us to an inflection point—where we think deeply about future role of the workplace and begin to identify the tasks that truly benefit from it.

The top right and lower left quadrants reveal the positive changes as a result of WFH.
Change in daily working hours since WFH

Home working has improved effectiveness—but at what cost?

Interestingly, despite the perceived dissatisfaction with home ergonomics and technology, the majority of respondents reported higher work effectiveness since WFH. This may be tied to an increase in flexibility and autonomy around work hours and structuring of tasks.

More than half of respondents reported a change in working hours since WFH, including working later into the evening and/or starting earlier in the morning. Further analysis revealed that those working longer hours (early start, late finish, or fewer breaks) were more likely to be dissatisfied with their well-being since WFH. Research has shown that longer working hours may impact efficiency and may decrease well-being in the long run.

As an organization, it is our duty to anticipate the long-term consequences of continuous overwork like fatigue, burnout, and decreased productivity, making this reported shift a “yellow flag” to watch closely. As managers trying to support teams, empowering individuals to do their work in the time that best suits them may prevent these long-term adverse consequences.

Offices offer a sense of belonging and culture

Our employees reported increased satisfaction levels with firmwide communication, reaffirming the importance of clear messaging and transparency during these uncertain times. Yet, office culture and a sense of belonging have seen the highest decline since WFH.

Many of us see quite clearly that we cannot completely replace the in-person office experience virtually. The joy of getting people with a shared sense of purpose together may be the driving force to reopen our offices in the future once it’s deemed safe to do so. In the meantime, it may be necessary to creatively rethink virtual opportunities for unstructured meeting times, serendipitous water cooler conversations, or lunch time banter. We need to continue to think about how to “script the unscripted”  to help human interaction and social connections both virtually and in person.

Satisfaction with cultural and social features since WFH

Office of the future

As a research-based firm, we use data to drive our operational decision-making. By applying the AT HOME survey findings, we believe we can mitigate long-term issues by proactively addressing factors that negatively impact the WFH experience, while harnessing the positives. For example, we found that several employee populations required additional support or consideration. Tailoring our approaches based on demographic differences will ensure we meet the needs of all employees.

In the coming weeks we will dig deeper into the findings to discuss the unique findings for caretakers of children or adults, how age and seniority effect efficiency and effectiveness, how our past commute may impact WFH satisfaction, and creating a sense of identity in a blended office environment.

As we look to design the office of the future there is no one size fits all, but there are opportunities for us to work with greater comfort, flexibility, and focus. We can use what we’ve learned from this shift to guide an optimal work arrangement in this transitional time—and well beyond.

Work location pre- and post-COVID 19