Working from home during COVID-19: Winners and Losers
It’s now been over six months since we all started the biggest agile working experiment of all time!
So, I'm really excited to share what the before nine team are seeing in terms of impacts on employee experience and business outcomes.
What’s the verdict so far? Here are our top ten takeaways on the winners and losers.
1 – Working from home during a crisis is not the same as remote working!
First things first, it’s important to distinguish remote working from homeworking during a crisis. The former applies to people who have been working remotely with pre-agreed flexible working hours, an established way of working, formally agreed meeting etiquette and – if they’re lucky - managers and leaders who have been trained in how to bring out the best of their people remotely. Compare this to what we’re actually doing - working from home in a crisis.
What does that actually mean? Given the need for speed, we’ve tried to “drag and drop” everything about our office culture into a remote environment. Plus, sitting alongside our professional responsibilities, we have everything that we're trying to achieve personally, whether it's family commitments and home-schooling or supporting shielding relatives. And we also have the rising and dipping waves of uncertainty and ambiguity that accompany this prolonged crisis placing a huge emotional and cognitive load on us.
Have leaders adjusted the expectations placed on their people accordingly?
2 – The tech professionals who delivered our swift transition to agile working have paid a high price
Let's start by looking at the community that have enabled the homeworking. In their joint research, Mental Health at the Crossroads, Harvey Nash and This Can Happen (TCH) surveyed technology professionals on their mental health during the first few months of the crisis. 36% of tech professionals saw their mental health deteriorate as a result of the pandemic generally.
The huge rush to get people and systems up and running to deliver business continuity also took its toll with 27% of professionals reporting that their concerns around mental health resulted specifically from the working pressures surrounding the pandemic. Professionals in IT Operations, Project Management and Programme Management were most adversely affected. Worryingly, 36% of those concerned about mental health were concerned for the first time in their lives.
Did they have proven coping strategies or an awareness of how to access support when they needed it?
3 – Coronavirus reminds us that operational conditions drive workplace stress
Reported causes of mental health issues amongst tech professionals has ranged from having no time to switch off to fears around job loss as a result of the pandemic. Just under a third of the Harvey Nash and TCH survey respondents cited the need to work on complex projects as a cause of mental health issues.
Not only did Business as Usual (BAU) continue, but some digital transformation programmes actually accelerated because of the need to capture a new customer base who expected a digital product to replace an existing physical one – the retail sector comes to mind! With tech professionals citing executives’ unrealistic deadlines to the cutting of contractors and staff placed on furlough, the survey is a reminder that the operational environment ultimately drives stress in the workplace.
How are Technology leaders working at the highest levels of their organisation to proactively mitigate these causes of stress on their people?
4 - But there is some good news for IT leaders!
Only 8% of tech professionals felt that a lack of management soft skills was a cause of their mental health issues. This is actually great news considering the Technology environment has traditionally been one in which managers have been alleged to lack people skills.
To add another notch to their belt, staff have been really impressed by the infrastructure set up by IT to enable homeworking. In its survey of knowledge workers from across the US, UK, France, Germany, Japan and Australia to inform a Remote Employee Experience Index, Slack's Future Forum found that staff rated remote working as +20.3 higher than the office when it came to ‘satisfaction with working arrangement’ i.e. their perception of the infrastructure and support that underpins their work experience. This is a great news story for the technology community, who have spent years trying to argue both the case for agile working at scale and the capability to deliver it!
Are they shouting about this success from the rooftops? They should!
5 – Working from home has helped us better manage work-life balance and work-related stress
Despite the significant challenges associated with balancing our personal, family and professional commitments in crisis conditions, the area of employee experience that comes up highest in Slack’s index when comparing remote working to office working is 'work-life balance'.
Another interesting point here is that people felt that if they were experiencing work-related stress and anxiety, it was actually easier to manage issues whilst working from home than had they been in the office, even though the latter offers up connection, support and - ideally - resolution. What does this say about our ability to address work-related causes of mental health issues?
Are we still feeling unable to speak truth to power when it comes to highlighting issues around workplace demands, resources, environment and support?
6 – Our sense of belonging has been eroded - weekly status meetings have made it even worse!
By far the most striking element of Slack’s index is the one area in which remote working compares unfavourably with office working: sense of belonging. And when we talk about sense of belonging, we’re not just talking about the fact that we miss being sociable, surrounded by colleagues in our offices. It also speaks to our belief that “We belong”, “Our work matters”, “Our voices matter” and “We are included”. As I highlighted in our blog “The before nine take on flourishing”, meaning, purpose and belonging are all central to our wellbeing.
What’s even more surprising? People who attended weekly status meetings reported lower sense of belonging than those who didn’t. I’m assuming that these meetings were essentially a “drag and drop” version of our physical weekly meetings (i.e. same duration, same format, one person takes their turn to report on their activities, request resources, etc).
How are managers adapting the format and facilitation of meetings in order to keep their people engaged?
7 – Home working has actually improved employee experience for employees from minority groups
The data from US knowledge workers drawn from ethnic minorities has also been insightful. Black, Asian and Hispanic respondents all reported higher index scores for remote working vs office working – the most dramatic increase lay in ‘sense of belonging’. Could this be because the ties that bond these groups to their communities are stronger than their ties to - or sense of inclusion within - their organisation?
The one downside to working from home lay in their response to the statement “My manager is supportive when I need help”, which fared higher for the office than remote working, which raises the question.....
How are managers ensuring that they are accessible to their teams and meeting their diverse needs whilst working from home?
8 – People managers actually prefer the office!
Speaking of which, if you manage a team yourself, you may relate to the finding that adapting to home working has been hardest for those with line management responsibilities. In Slack's survey, their scores for 'sense of belonging', 'productivity' and 'managing work-related stress' in a remote working environment were much lower than colleagues with no people responsibilities.
Let's face it – these managers find it challenging to balance operational demands with people responsibilities at the best of times. But given the impact of this crisis on their people, they’ve had to move to a predominantly “coach and support” role, made even more challenging through the use of digital only channels. Despite being so crucial to organisational performance, I’ve seen how neglected middle managers are when it comes to leadership development.
How can we equip managers with the coaching skills and tools they need to remotely support and unlock the performance of their teams during daily interactions?
9 – Younger workers are missing out on vital learning and development
You may have seen the news article on JP Morgan’s experience of remote working. One concern focused on their younger employees, who are missing out on the informal learning and development opportunities that come from physically being in the workplace e.g. being called into new meetings or projects at the last minute, taking advantage of the opportunity to wander over to a colleague’s desk to ask a quick question without feeling that they’re making a formal demand on someone’s time.
A recent article in The Atlantic reinforces this point, asking whether younger employees, especially newly onboarded staff, will remain ‘unknown quantities’. Looking back on the career progression of young employees who started work during the 2008 financial crisis, there are concerns about both the short and longer term effects of working from home on this new generation entering the workforce.
How can we mitigate this risk within our own organisations, given that we’re still likely to be working from home for many months to come?
10 – Productivity does not equal collaboration, creativity or innovation!
Finally, whilst people are reporting increased productivity working from home in comparison to the office (+10.7 in Slack’s survey), there’s a growing concern around the fact that whilst efficient task completion is higher, remote working tends to reinforce silos. When did you last invite someone from outside your team or department to participate in (or observe) a meeting? Or have an informal chat with someone from another team? Ever since the move to ‘open plan’, the office has generated increasing opportunities for creative interaction and informal collaboration, key ingredients for innovation.
How do we ensure that we keep our networks open in a remote environment?
The research demonstrates that there are both gains and losses in seeking to sustain optimal human and organisational performance in a remote environment. If you'd like to find out more about the work we're doing to enable leaders, teams and the workforce at large to develop the capabilities to meet home working challenges head on and exploit opportunities, do get in touch!