18 August 2020

By Travis Schultz, Managing Partner

For many “knowledge workers”, remote working arrangements have been somewhat of a blessing due to the flexibility that comes with working from home.

To others, it has been nothing short of disastrous wholly due to the organisation’s IT infrastructure capabilities stretching unsuccessfully to support efficiencies in an isolated temporary workplace.

But despite the remote technology access lag and the less-than-ergonomic home office setups, there’s no doubt this new normal work environment has brought with it the luxury of plasticity in how and when work is done.

The downside of that is, the loss of demarcation between work and personal lives meaning we’re mostly actually working longer than ever before.

A recent paper published by the Harvard Business School is just one to provide the hard data to show that across the globe, “knowledge workers” who, by definition should be enjoying their starched white collars and cosy office comforts, are now doing their heavy lifting around the clock.

The authors of Collaborating During Coronavirus: The Impact of Covid-19 on the Nature of Work* aggregated meeting and email metadata from some 3.1 million workers across 21,478 firms in 16 different locked down cities across the world and found there was a significant variance between the behaviours in the eight weeks prior to Covid-19 lockdown and the eight weeks post lockdown.

Those changes included:

  1. 12.9% increase in the number of meetings per person;
  2. 13.5% increase in the number of attendees at meetings;
  3. Decrease of 20.1% in the duration of meetings; and
  4. An increase in the length of the working day of 8.2% or 48 minutes.

My take on these numbers means we have found ourselves in more, albeit shorter, meetings with more people but that has translated to almost a good hour tacked on to the working day. So, we’re giving a greater number of people shorter grabs of our time across a multitude of new meetings and then having to make up more time on the tools. If I were a betting man, that would have to be lose: lose. Should we just go back to commuting?

And what does this say for the rest of the workforce if the very top end of it – identified by the father of modern day management theory Peter Drucker as ‘knowledge workers’ – are now in fact working longer and not necessarily smarter?

Or is that just it: that these workers who were heralded as the ‘most valuable assets’ for a 21st century organisation due to their high level of productivity and creativity can’t bear to down tools because of a sort of iso-life induced pandemic-limbo?

The Harvard Business School’s published academics certainly suggest this may be the case. They point to a range of possible reasons for the changes in the way knowledge workers have collaborated since the pandemic, but for me, the most striking feature of the research is that employees seem to have simply decided to work more when doing so remotely. Whether that’s because they are “giving back” some of their commute time to their employer, or feeling less efficient working from home – certainly popping up from the kitchen table desk to pop on a load of washing during the day must take its toll? Or perhaps it’s just that we’ve been so bored while confined to our abodes that we work more to ensure we spend less time eating and drinking?

Surely we can’t have come full circle from the iconic 1980’s when working 9 to 5 using your mind and never getting credit was eschewed (with a little help from Dolly Parton) by the next generation of ‘4-hour work week’ employees?

Whatever the reason, I’m certain that those of us who are said to think for a living may have just been thinking too much… and let’s face it there’s been plenty to ponder on in the last six months. By the time the next set of workers are analysed I’m sure there will have been a re-set to pre-COVID19 workhours. What do you think?

*Source: DeFilippis, Evan and Impink, Stephen and Singell, Madison and Polzer, Jeffrey T. and Sadun, Raffaella, Collaborating During Coronavirus: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Nature of Work (July 16, 2020). Harvard Business School Organizational Behavior Unit Working Paper No. 21-006, Harvard Business School Strategy Unit Working Paper No. 21-006, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3654470 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3654470

Travis Schultz

Travis Schultz

Managing Partner