News & Analysis

How WFH Could be Creating Some New Abnormals

Image source: HBR.Org

For the human race, socializing is the essence of existence. Where would we be if we couldn’t plan for a TGIF in advance, watch some movies together at home, eat out when possible and take a break from our work at least once a year, and if possible more. The Covid-19 pandemic has pretty much taken away all of these little thrills that accounted for a happy state. 

When the work-from-home began in end-March, the excitement was palpable – no early morning rush, no traffic snarls, no pollution and best of all, no fixed routine. For organisations that could manage with a remote staff, this was manna from heaven as at one fell swoop it reduced costs incurred on maintaining an office space. What’s more they observed productivity increase too. 

However, a recent survey by Microsoft on the consequences of employees working from their homes raises some questions. The results of the survey, published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), suggests that things aren’t as rosy as one had expected when the lockdown had caused this initial WFH trend. 

Also check out: Mental Health Ramifications of Working from Home

The report said that people remained switched on for four extra hours a week, though in some of the Indian companies we reached out to, this number was closer to 10-12 hours. Research suggested that the reasons could be as varied as taking time out during the day to complete the household chores to the extra time required to clarify doubts and enhance processes, which in the normal office could mean just a chat beside the water cooler. 

Another factor that came to fore was the belief (not erroneous) that managers presumed that their team was available anytime and at one place. In other words, the powerful art of saying ‘NO’ seems to have diminished further in the WFH scenario. And a resultant challenge was the flexibility around meals (a possible health hazard) as meetings were based on convenience and not as a matter of the daily process flow. 

Do check out our story on: When Remote Work Doesn’t Work

Here are some of the findings of this research, which essentially lays emphasis on three key aspects: 

  • Collaboration patterns appeared to change with more 30-minutes meetings per day causing a 10% overall rise in weekly meeting times. Ironically, individual meeting time shrunk during the period with 30-minute slots growing by 22% and 60-plus minute conversations reducing by 11%. Could we assume that tactical discussions were replacing strategic ones? Microsoft doesn’t think so as the report thinks that the longer meetings actually curtailed productivity. The question to ask here would be: How many times did these short meetings require follow-up meetings because discussions didn’t really delve deeper as they should’ve. 
  • If you thought managers had it easy post WFH, think again as research says they were collaborating eight hours more per week. Microsoft Teams calls doubled from 7 to 14 hours a week post the lockdown and a big chunk of this time went in supporting the staff, nurturing connections and managing dispersed teams. Manager messages grew 115% during the lockdown as against a 50% growth from individual contributors. It also came out that managers increased the frequency of one-on-ones with employees in order to stay aligned with the business. 
  • Work cultures have shifted and so has flexibility. Most of the teams at Microsoft shifted meetings from mornings to late afternoons and early evenings. With more meetings and personal responsibilities dovetailing into each other, flexibility became paramount as working in pockets became the norm. For e.g., instant messaging reduced 10% during lunch time from 25% in the pre-lockdown days and weekends blurred too as work came calling even on Saturdays and Sundays. 

Overall, while the working from home norm gave flexibility to the employees, there was a stiff cost that they paid in terms of extended working hours and the blurring of work-life-balance that could well entrench itself as the new normal. 


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