Lately, we have traded the exasperating but friendly office co-worker who pops by to ask “Got a minute?” for a curious housecat who leaps onto the keyboard, and with a slightly shifty landing, paw-presses the power button just before we can hit “save.”
Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics (GWA) estimates that 56 percent of employees in the U.S. work in jobs that can be partially or fully performed remotely. And with social distancing necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, a significant percentage of employees have been asked to quickly move their desktop to a spot down the hall from their kitchen.
“Of course, these are not normal work-at-home conditions,” Lister said. “Prior to COVID-19, one of the primary things employees see from working at home is fewer interruptions, which the research shows not only leads to higher productivity, but lower stress.”
GWA partnered with other organizations in a large study that evaluated impacts of the pandemic on workplaces. The Global Work-from Home Experience Survey was conducted by GWA, several global associations, and with Dr. Anita Kamouri, co-founder of Iometrics.
The study, released on June 2, found that 82 percent of American office workers would like to continue to perform some of their work remotely after the pandemic, which translates to about 75 million employees, according to a GWA press release. Only 19 percent want to work entirely from home. Most workers would opt for dividing up their week between home and the office, with the “sweet spot” at a 50/50 split.
According to the survey, 61 percent of staffers are happy with team collaboration via the Web, although 87 percent are more satisfied with collaborating in person.
COVID-19 has begun a trend that will impact workplaces well into the future
Remarkably, this spring, 46 percent to about half of all currently employed Americans made the sudden switch to working from home, according to Willis Towers Watson, Zapier Inc., and The Brookings Institution.
“Up to half of American workers are currently working from home, more than double the fraction who worked from home (at least occasionally) in 2017–2018,” wrote Katherine Guyot and Isabel V. Sawhill in “Telecommuting will likely continue long after the pandemic,” on The Brookings Institution blog.
So far, workplace experts, recently released data, and staffer descriptions reveal there are fewer interruptions while working remotely than employees expected.
GWA’s survey found that interruptions take up about 78 minutes a day at the office, but only 43 minutes a day when working from home.
There have been some initial kinks and understandable disruptions — for example, Derek Van Dam, CNN weather anchor was taping a report at his home when his young daughter walked through the camera’s field of view.
“A good reminder that, even at 2 a.m., the house, and hence your @CNN studio, still belongs to the kids,” tweeted Van Dam.
— Derek Van Dam (@VanDamCNN) April 17, 2020
Individuals working from home may have younger kids who seek attention, snacks, and occasionally need tutoring for their school assignments.
Lister said that in families with very young children, it is better if there is one adult caregiver beside the remote worker at home to manage schoolwork and be at the ready, for say, happenings that necessitate band aids and antibacterial ointment. Other types of family caregiving are sometimes easier to integrate with telecommuting.
“It can work well with elder care since their needs tend to be less urgent and easier to plan around,” she explained.
A small home office space that includes a door is often helpful in preventing too many interruptions for a remote worker, as well as to set clearly understood boundaries.
“I’ve seen people come up with some pretty clever alternatives,” Lister said. “My favorite is the mom who wears a tiara when she’s not to be interrupted.”
Study finds 80 percent can now better manage interruptions from co-workers
Zapier Inc. commissioned The Harris Poll to conduct a March survey of more than 1,200 employed adults above the age of 18 about their transition in the past month to working from home.
Even though 66 percent of those surveyed said they prefer going in to the workplace, 65 percent said their productivity had increased working from home, and a substantial 80 percent reported better management of interruptions from co-workers.
In addition, Zapier posted a few data points that support the idea that there may be greater productivity and fewer interruptions for remote workers, including the following:
- A robust 77 percent reported their supervisor does not expect an instant response to messages
- Only 29 percent indicated that their family added an unpredictable effect to their schedule
- Also at 77 percent, staffers found new times to be productive that do not fall neatly into the typical nine to five work day
Gallup, Inc. posts that managers can make adjustments to help parents who work from home.
“It might be easiest to dedicate focused time early in the morning, before children are awake,” wrote Sofia Kluch, Ph.D. and Adam Hickman, Ph.D. on Gallup.com. “Similarly, naptime might be the golden hour for an important conference call. Turning back to a project at 8 p.m. once dinner and baths are complete might facilitate getting work out the door.”
Workers avoid distractions by setting boundaries and finding a good workspace
On March 19, startup adviser Mark Neuhausen commented on the Quora question, “What is the best part of working from home?” For him, the best part of remote work is not losing time commuting to an office.
“I also found home to be comfortable and free of distractions when the kids were not home,” he explained. “And I did set rules so that they understood that when dad was in the office, dad was at work, which helped.”
A spouse also can unintentionally cause interruptions. Jenn Lepre, R.N., works as a nurse consultant for Aetna Inc. In August, she answered the Quora question “How can you maximize productivity when working from home?”
“Thanks to Skype I have a running chat with my team in case any of us have questions, but generally we all work independently on our own cases or in coverage,” she added. “I have a home office with two monitors and a laptop. I do love my office, but it feels confining — my husband works at home sometimes and when he does I do generally work in my office so I’m not distracted, otherwise I take my laptop to my screened-in sun room and work outside most of the day. It’s nice to have the flexibility to work wherever I want in my house.”
In-office workers see more interruptions than when they telecommute
According to the 2018 Workplace Distraction Report by Udemy Inc., 54 percent of those surveyed reported that one of the impacts from in-office distractions was not performing “as well as they should.”
Years before Udemy’s study, software entrepreneur Jason Fried presented what has become a popular talk — with more than 5.9 million views to date — about the problem of distraction and interruption. “Why work doesn’t happen at work” took place in 2010 at TEDxMidwest.
Fried said that for 10 years he had been asking individuals what they did to get the most work accomplished, and the answers were typically one of three types; a specific room or location, a work session while commuting, or a certain time of day or on the weekend. Unexpectedly, he found that regular office hours weren’t high on peoples’ lists.
“It’s like the front door of the office is like a Cuisinart, and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits, because you have 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there, and something else happens; you’re pulled off your work, then you have 20 minutes, then it’s lunch, then you have something else to do,” he said in his talk. “Then you’ve got 15 minutes, and someone pulls you aside and asks you a question, and before you know it, it’s 5 p.m., and you look back on the day, and you realize that you didn’t get anything done.”
The difference, he said, is that workplace interruptions are typically involuntary, while the distractions at home are voluntary — and therefore are more controllable. Many interruptions at the office are from managers, making sure that work is being done, he added. The second major category of workplace interruptions are meetings, because any ten participants might have been at various stages of projects, immersed in thought — not at the same good stopping point when a meeting starts.
Most experts agree that when working remotely, some video conferencing, communication platform messaging, or other interactions help a team sense more of a connection and shared purpose.
Fried added that email and instant messaging are not as much of an interruption because they can be muted for the time period needed to focus on an in-depth task.
Turning off work is actually challenging, right?
Some find it hard to stop working at home, because there is not the clear physical boundary of leaving a brick and mortar office.
Executive coach Melody Wilding wrote an article for Forbes about disconnecting, “How To Work From Home Without Burning Out Or Losing Work Life Balance.” She considers that preserving work-life balance is one of the top challenges newly remote workers face.
“The boundaries between your personal and professional life blur,” she explained. “It’s easy to let self-care go out the window. And you may find yourself overworking in an attempt to appear productive.”
She offers suggestions such as tidying up your workspace at the end of a day’s work session, jotting down a list of three things to be done the next day, changing your outfit, and turning the computer completely off. Powering down makes it harder to log in later for one more task.
Lister agrees that tangible borderlines help a telecommuter disengage from assignments.
“Certainly a door helps block out distractions, and in turning it off at the end of a day,” Lister said.
Some initial predictions for the future of remote work
“Our prediction is that the longer people are required to work at home, the greater the adoption we will see when the dust settles,” according to a GWA news release.
Additional experts agree.
“Between 2005 and 2015, the fraction of workers who regularly worked from home increased by only about 2 to 3 percentage points, according to (a 2020 paper by) Mas and Pallais,” Guyot and Sawhill wrote. “Even at that growth rate, telecommuting has been the fastest-growing method of commuting over the last several years. If our new telecommuting culture sticks, the pandemic will have accelerated this trend dramatically. Already, nearly one in five chief financial officers surveyed last week said they planned to keep at least 20 percent of their workforce working remotely to cut costs.”
Working from home may be surprisingly awesome for staffers and managers
Gallup research points to a balance between in-office and at-home work for achieving optimal employee engagement.
“Weekly face time with co-workers and managers seems to affect engagement: the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60 percent to 80 percent of their time working off-site — or three to four days in a five-day workweek,” wrote Adam Hickman, Ph.D. and Jennifer Robison in the article “Is Working Remotely Effective? Gallup Research Says Yes.”
And for feline interruptions; startup advisor, programmer, and product developer Dan Loewenherz has a suggestion. In a post on Quora.com, he wrote about his two cats.
“They tend to jump all over the place, play around, and make sounds all day long,” he explained. “As a result, a pair of noise-canceling headphones has been absolutely indispensable to me to stay focused when I need it.”
It is fairly safe to say that both employers and employees are now seeing many mutual benefits from telecommuting. GWA predicts that eventually the demand for office space in the U.S. could decrease by more than a billion square feet.
“The resulting change in how and where people work will have far-reaching implications for the built environment, sustainability, labor markets, transportation infrastructure, regional planning, tax and labor laws, and more,” Lister said in the GWA press release. “It’s never going to be work as we knew it again.”
Initially published on Medium.com by the writer on Apr. 27, 2020. Updated here on June 29.