We recently wrote about how 2020 will be remembered as a year of upheaval and change, and how, in terms of corporate social responsibility, things will never look the same. But the shift in focus of CSR is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of how our working world has evolved. In 2020, millions of people were suddenly thrust into remote work. We lived through lockdowns and social distancing, we turned our homes into offices. Communication suddenly existed only in the virtual realm. Newly remote teams struggled to adapt. The phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” was born. We might not know how the future will look, but we know our working world will never be the same.
The 2020 mass remote experiment gave us a unique opportunity to revisit the ways we work. We’ve examined how adaptable flexible work really is, the different ways we like to communicate, what we expect from our employers, how to maintain healthy work/life balance and what wellbeing looks like in a time of crisis. The experiment might not be over, but what have we learned about work itself so far? And how has 2020 already dramatically changed our working patterns?
In order to examine how our working patterns have changed across 2020, Microsoft 365 used Workplace Analytics and anonymous sentiment surveys to try to understand the experiences of their team and uncover what’s changed. One of the biggest shifts was seen in the ways we collaborate. In recent years, office meetings have increased in both duration and frequency, and were regularly cited as one of the biggest drains on time, money and productivity. Since going remote, Microsoft saw a 10% increase in weekly meeting time – an unsurprising statistic considering that spontaneous interaction was no longer a possibility and all communication had to be scheduled.
However, what was unexpected was the fact that individual meetings became considerably shorter – and as the sentiment survey showed, this was a change that employees greatly appreciated. One result of the move to remote work is that we’ve been given the space to actually step back and think about whether we really need to have daily catch-up meetings, or spend hours sitting around a table talking when we could be working. So in this respect, the remote experiment has been a chance for us to reject some of the inefficiencies of office life, like unnecessary meetings, while prioritizing valuable processes like deep work.
But while some of these shifts in work culture are intentional and desirable, it isn’t always the case. Without commutes to bookend our working day, our schedules have become formless and flexible. Clearly defined boundaries have given way to haziness about where the working day begins and ends, and our professional tasks have slowly started to encroach on our personal lives. In the office, employees had structured days – meetings in the morning, a proper lunch break, deep work in the afternoon – but today things look quite different.
Pre-lockdown, Microsoft saw a 25% reduction in communication during lunch time; now it’s down to 10%. Similarly, the amount of communication occurring between six pm and midnight has gone up 52%. Clearly, lunchtimes and evenings are no longer breaks from screens. On average, people worked for four extra hours a week – a fact that was explained in part by people feeling the need to seize small windows of time throughout the day to care for children, run errands, or just to escape the sometimes-stifling confines of the home. To make up for this, people felt the need to begin work earlier and sign out later. So much for the idea that remote work means people might slack off...
But it wasn’t just the weekdays that were impacted – weekends were too. Within one month, employees who never used to work weekends – or who worked for at most ten minutes – worked for triple that. Flexible work might have always sounded like a good thing, but there’s a point when it stops being a positive. As many people have discovered, that point is when the professional world starts to intrude into the personal, and we begin to lose our evenings, and our weekends are slowly worn away. Now, there is no longer any separation between work and leisure. These two pursuits inhabit a single space. We’re not bringing our work home with us anymore; work is home.
We know that having a healthy work/life balance is crucial for protecting our mental health, but as work and play become more fluid, it’s hard to identify how we’ll be able to adequately do this. One perk of the remote work experiment is that employees have been given more autonomy over the ways they work, and in the future, it’s unlikely this will change. Whether people choose to work in the office, from home, or in a hybrid working model, giving employees the opportunity to work how and when they like will become increasingly common.
And then there’s the idea of human connection – or lack thereof. Enjoying meaningful interactions with other people is integral to our wellbeing, but without face-to-face communication, our connection to the office and our coworkers is chipped away, and any sense of belonging risks being lost. The virtual workspace poses a huge problem for building strong, meaningful work friendships and in view of the millennial loneliness epidemic , we have to seriously ask ourselves whether remote work is good for early-career employees.
For younger employees who’ve moved away to a new city, going into the office was just as important from a social perspective as professional – and as many of us now know all too well, digital communication is no match for face-to-face interaction. But as Microsoft’s survey showed, humans are resilient, and if human connection is important to us, we’ll find a way to get it. Virtual social meetings went up 10%, and scheduled one-on-ones went up 18%. What this tells us is that people would rather work for longer than miss out on human connection. Expect to see an increase in virtual pizza parties and happy hours, as well as one-on-one video calls. They may not be as good as in-person interactions, but for now, they’ll have to do.
We don’t know what 2021 will look like yet, but we do know that remote work is here to stay. To succeed, companies will need to introduce robust remote work policies – clarifying processes and tools, collaboration norms, support and wellness, feedback mechanisms, training and financial responsibility for the remote workplace. Nothing is certain, but hopefully, the future will allow us to choose how, where and when we work. But as we continue to navigate the daily challenges of lockdown life, it might be helpful to step back for a moment and look at how much our world has changed in the past 50 years. Pandemic aside, we should remember that our working patterns have changed before – and they can and will change again.