One of the few positives of the pandemic lockdown was the opportunity to reset the way in which we spend our working day.
This was the chance to prove that remote work actually works.
As someone whose job it is to run workplace experiments I’d say six or seven weeks is a very good point to get an initial idea of how we are doing. Our experience at Bromford Lab has shown us that if we don’t reflect on the learnings and remove the pain points within the first three months, the experiment will very likely fail.
This mass remote work experiment is something very different though – it’s not some small safe to fail venture. With billions of people across the world in some kind of lockdown, we are conducting the largest social, workplace and psychological experiment ever – all at the same time.
With so many alien factors that’s not a good basis for any considered evaluation, so we may not get a sense of what’s truly worked for some time. People’s productivity for example will be influenced substantially by the psychological impact of lockdown. The Lancet has reported that people who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Where parents are quarantined with children, the mental health toll becomes even steeper.
Therefore it is vitally important to understand that this isn’t a remote work experiment, it’s an enforced work from home experiment happening at the same time as the suspension of the most basic of our civil liberties.
That said , there is still a lot of learning to be had and luckily for us we have access to social networks where people are blogging their experiences, contributing to articles and giving us a treasure trove of anecdotal evidence.
The phases of disaster response
When disaster strikes, Beverly Raphael, 1986
It appears that after the initial optimism about remote working (arguably the ‘honeymoon period’ in terms of disaster response) people’s experience now seems to be decidedly mixed. We are possibly entering our ‘disillusionment phase’ as we yearn for a return to normal – despite the fact we never really liked normal in the first place.
People are already valuing the loss of commuting time with a poll for transport consultants SYSTRA finding that 1 in 4 people said they plan to work from home more, saving on travel time and cost, and striking a better work-life balance.
There’s been a major boost for video-conferencing, too. As many as 67% of people said they believe virtual meetings will replace some or all future business trips or meetings. The longer we have a lockdown the more people who haven’t previously used such tools will get used to them. The longer people spend not commuting and spending their money on fuel and transport the more resistant they will be to return to it.
Lockdown should have given us the opportunity to design our own unique workday.
It’s been well established that an enforced 9-5 saps our creativity and harms our productivity. One of the reasons is that we all sleep differently – and our internal clock shapes our energy levels, ability to focus, and creativity throughout the day.
This is known as our circadian rhythm and it has a profound effect on our creativity. It doesn’t work how you’d expect – for instance many morning people have more insights in the evening with night owls having their breakthroughs in the morning.
Each day on average we take a few hours to reach peak performance – at around 10:30am. Soon after lunch those levels start to decline before hitting a low point around 3pm. Our second performance peak, at around 6pm, is reached after most offices have closed.
Working from home for long periods is the ideal opportunity to sync your worklife with your circadian rhythm. However , anecdotal evidence seems to show that many employers haven’t allowed people to fully explore this.
Instead it’s only taken six weeks to replace meetings with even more meetings.
Technology has made it easy to hijack any available minute of someones time in just a few clicks. Organising a physical meeting is a complex activity – the logistics of finding everyone in the same place is especially painful.
However a fully virtual meeting can happen today at 5pm, as it’s not as if anyone is driving anywhere anymore.
Instant availability allows meetings to breed like rabbits taking over our calendar’s. Strict checks and balances – a sort of virtual distancing – need to be in place to ensure that our new workdays don’t just become a succession of Skypes and Zooms.
There are a lot of advantages to online meetings, but as Steve Blank has said, none of the current generation of apps capture the complexity of human interaction. The technology doesn’t emulate how people interact with others in person. Indeed “every one of these video applications has ignored a half-century of research on how people communicate.”
We’ve already got a new term ‘Zoom fatigue’ that recognises that video conferencing leaves us with “a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing.” Whilst perceiving subtle social cues takes little conscious effort in person, virtual interactions can be exhausting.
As Marissa Shuffler explains, if we are physically on camera we are very aware of being watched. “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.” Focusing on people’s faces, their bookcases, cats and home decor results in a sensory overload that makes us miss the the natural social cues that guide us in the real world.
So – the much maligned office actually did have something going for it. It actually restricted meetings on demand.
As Catherine Nixey writes in a must read piece – there’s one reason and one reason only that people miss the office: other people.
Skype, Zoom et al simply can’t replicate the social experience of chance encounters and just the experience of talking unguarded with our fellow humans.
“Humans need offices. Online encounters may be keeping us alive as social beings right now, but work-related video meetings are too often transactional, awkward and unappealing.”
It’s this conundrum that organisations must wrestle with in the coming months. The knee-jerk reaction would be to rid ourselves of offices. However, we could be storing up a huge problem down the tracks when it comes to social isolation and wellbeing.
We need to aim at least for a way of working that is more intimate, that embodies a sense of belonging and whose mainstay is quality focused time rather than being locked to a screen staring at a grid of faces.
We haven’t yet failed the remote working experiment.
However there are clear warning signs that we cannot allow technology to make it even easier for us just to be busier. New problems will emerge post-pandemic that require focussed, deep and productive work. Curtailing our nascent love affair with video conferencing is necessary – perhaps even requiring us to limit our screen time to a couple of hours each day.
The experiments we need to start – sooner rather than later – need to capture the best of home working (zero commute, flexibility, time spent locally) with the best of the office (random human connection, physical chemistry).
Anything less and we risk just swapping one dysfunctional model for another.