Doesn’t Take Harvard to Tell Us We’re Working More, But They Can Help

In a conversation I had with Putman Media’s Erin Hallstrom a couple weeks ago, she talked about the Influential Women in Manufacturing program she runs, a business podcast she puts together and hosts (Food for Thought), a personal podcast, a book she’s writing, plus all her daily SEO and digital duties, etc.
How can you do all these things, I asked?
“I’m training to be a lockdown Olympian, doing all these things,” she said, both proudly and with a bit of incredulousness. When her sister got married in July, she was maid of honor, and for the two days she was taking off, her boss made her promise not to check in. “I wrote a blogpost about how anxious I was for being off for two days,” she said.
Erin, you’re not alone. A new Harvard Business School study says that we are working longer hours with more emails and meetings than ever before. Not surprised, I take it. Okay, let’s delve in a little deeper.
That’s a lot of extra minutes. “An analysis of the emails and meetings of 3.1 million people in 16 global cities found that the average workday increased by 8.2%—or 48.5 minutes—during the pandemic’s early weeks. Employees also participated in more meetings, though for less time than they did before COVID-19 sent many workers home.”
Remember when Zoom used to just be a kids TV show. “There is a general sense that we never stop being in front of Zoom or interacting,” says Raffaella Sadun, professor of business administration in the HBS Strategy Unit. (She spent the spring advising the Italian government about how to reopen its economy post-lockdown.) And that has an effect on us, she added.
9-5 workday? Where? Shifting to remote work took away whatever was left of the “elusive 9-to-5 business day and replaced it with videoconferencing and ‘asynchronous work,’” Danielle Kost, senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, writes. She reports that “at least 16% of Americans plan to keep working from home part of the time after COVID-19 abates.” That sounds low to me, from the conversations and non-scientific surveys I’ve seen and done.
No office, no… ? “The role of an office is to congregate and help people work together,” Sadun said. “For us, the question was, ‘What happens when you cannot have that physical space anymore?’ How do people adjust their work patterns?” Three results:
  • Employees sent 5.2% more emails a day.
  • Emails had 2.9% more recipients.
  • About 8.3% more emails were sent after business hours. (That’s a big number when you consider all the emails we send.)
We’re becoming a meet market. They also analyzed meeting invitations—the quantity, duration and number of attendees—and observed that:
  • People attended 13% more meetings.
  • Each meeting was 12 minutes—or 20%—shorter.
  • The number of people invited to each meeting rose by two, or 14%.
Boundaries are needed. The longer workdays result from there being less boundaries. Most of us don’t really have to be anywhere anymore. “Unless you really are able to create distinct boundaries between your life and your work, it’s almost inevitable that we see these blurring lines,” Sadun says.
Who are better off? “This is one of those things where it’s hard to make one statement for everybody,” Sadun says. “If you have a large house, life is good. If you have to combine your bedroom with your office, it’s not as good.”
Too much screen time? “The issue with Zoom is that you’re always on there. You have to show a concentrated face the whole time,” Sadun says. “It’s very unnatural to be constantly looking attentive for hours.” I’ve conducted interviews on Zoom and it is strange that when you aren’t looking at the screen, it looks like you’re not paying attention—as opposed to in-person where it’s awkward to stare at someone for too long.
Three pieces of advice to leaders of remote workforces:
  • “Empathize with workers’ unique circumstances. Managers need to know what their employees are juggling to provide the right professional support.”
  • Focus on output and quality, not hours.
  • “Expect wide differences in productivity across employees, for now.” Some may find working from home energizing while others crave that in-person interaction. (I’m in the latter and I cringe at friends who tell me how much they are enjoying the lack of a commute, their pets around all the time, etc..)

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