Two Harvard Studies Bring Data To How We Are Working Now And What That Means For Offices
Published Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Researchers from Harvard University have conducted two studies, one tracking the emails and digital calendars of more than 3 million workers across the world, the other surveying almost 700 office workers across the U.S. The data and insights the two studies generated are significant in trying to asses how people and companies will use office space in future. Here is what they showed. 

We’re working more Quite a lot more

The average workday is 49 minutes longer, a study led by Harvard’s Evan DeFilippis showed, based around aggregating when people sent their first and last email of the day. The more qualitative survey, led by Harvard’s Ethan Bernstein, found that in the weeks immediately after lockdown, about half of those surveyed were working more than 10 hours a day, compared to just 20% before lockdown. That figure has dropped, but those surveyed still reported a workday 10% to 20% longer.

More, shorter meetings

According to the large-scale study of working practices, following lockdown, we are having more meetings, an average of one more per day per person, partly because each meeting typically has more attendees. But the average duration of those meetings dropped 17%, or 12 minutes. The result: Overall, people spent less time in meetings. The total time spent in meetings is decreasing week by week, the study found, which might be related to the responses in the survey in which the majority of respondents found that they were able to be more productive.

Not quite stress-free, but almost

“Since all-virtual work began, employee stress, negative emotions, and task-related conflict have all been steadily falling; each is down at least 10%,” Bernstein and his co-authors wrote. “At the same time, employees have experienced an approximately 10% improvement in self-efficacy and their capacity to pay attention to their work.” Parents inevitably found life at home the hardest, given the difficulties of caring for children and working at the same time. 

Who is best suited to work from home

There was a surprising finding when it came to what type of person was best suited to working from home. The expectation of the survey authors was that introverts would find it easiest. But actually, it turned the best indicator was empathy and agreeableness — thinking about the feelings of others was the best predictor of who would fare best working from home. Even when not in physical contact with other people, thinking about them is a key skill. On the flip side, those with a tendency to be neurotic found working from home most difficult, without the regular reassurance that comes from being around colleagues. 

In it together

The authors of the survey pointed out that there have been many failed work-from-home experiments. What made this time different was the fact that everyone had to do it at the same time. This meant that companies put the right technology and structures in place, and there was no "lower class" of digital worker not present in the office, something to be avoided at all cost if flexible working is to be successful. 

Collaboration up, but is it the right type?

Because of the increased amount of email traffic necessitated by working from home, collaboration between close colleagues actually increased by 40%, Bernstein and his co-authors found. But collaboration between people who work together, but not as immediate colleagues, decreased by 10%, and this is important. The "weak ties" between these kind of colleagues have found to be important in helping companies to innovate.

Schmoozing is important

The survey authors also pointed out that digital interaction, by email or video, leaves less room for small talk, a crucial piece of office life. Those fabled interactions in the kitchen or at the water cooler are unlikely to lead to a team to invent the next Google, but they do build trust, which is important to keep organisations functioning. 

Avoid the worst of all worlds

Companies are currently weighing up whether to bring everyone back to the office, keep everyone at home or, more likely, create a hybrid of the two. The latter option needs to be handled with care however, particularly with regards to avoiding the creation of a system where those who work from home are out of sight so out of mind, reducing them to second-class status. Given the needs of social distancing — masks, people needing to spread out, reduced common areas — there is a chance companies could lose some of the benefits when bringing people back to the office anyway, at least in the near term.

How the best companies are thinking

Bernstein and his co-authors outline how some innovative companies are thinking about the world of work in future. The key one to note for office owners is that many company leaders surveyed are “conceptualizing office space as an add-on to virtual work, as opposed to the default for where people work,” the authors said. “This is permitting them not only to substantially reduce their real estate footprint (and cost) but also to refocus the purpose of physical spaces on what they uniquely offer: the ability to create weak ties and serendipitous conversations.”

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