By Ben Waber, originally for Work Design Magazine
Most corporate leaders would agree that a one-size fits all approach to management rarely works. Employees with different skill sets need different training programs to improve. Teams working on software development need different tools than those in finance. Workplaces, of course, also need to similarly vary to cater to different needs.
It’s with great concern, then, that numerous companies are making blanket future decisions about their workplace strategy that apply uniformly across the entire organization. In the midst of a global pandemic this is to some extent understandable, as grappling with complex decisions is made even harder through competing crises and responsibilities.
However these decisions will reverberate for years to come, and doing so without measurement and hard data to support these decisions will inevitably lead to poor outcomes for individuals and organizations. As we begin to think of a post-pandemic work environment, organizations need to carefully compare current and past collaboration patterns, identify past issues and new challenges, devise workplace pilots, and consider how the pandemic may permanently shift working patterns. Using data from existing corporate systems, such as email, chat, and in-office sensors, we can confidently plot a way forward.
At Humanyze, we have data from across billions of interactions to inform an examination of the state of work under our massive shift to working from home. Globally, we see a concerning five percent drop in weak ties (relationships responsible for between five and 15 minutes of one-to-one communication in an average week), although even this drop is likely a significant underestimate due to the rising prevalence of regular large virtual meetings with little participation. These ties are critical for innovation, building a shared culture, and coordinating across large projects. A drop like this will barely be noticeable to individuals, but will greatly impact the creativity and long term output of large organizations.
This contrasts with a marked increase in communication with strong ties, which has doubled. Faced with the prospect of less informal communication, most workers have proactively scheduled meetings with people they need to work with, resulting in much more communication and stronger relationships with their close collaborators. In the short term, these are positive signs. People are likely getting the information they need to do their work this week. Whether they are working on the right things, however, is another question entirely. This pattern paired with the drop in weak ties in particular indicates an increased risk of group think, siloing, and wasted effort.
A drop like this will barely be noticeable to individuals, but will greatly impact the creativity and long term output of large organizations.
These patterns are likely positive for parts of the organization, and long term should be further encouraged by a permanent shift to remote or hybrid work. A global supporting function that needs to be responsive to collaborators in different time zones, for example, would likely find these collaboration behaviors effective. Similarly, teams that previously spent a large amount of time in formal meetings likely have little change in their daily routine except for the lack of a commute.
Employees that have extremely individually focused roles may also benefit long term from a continuation of working from home. If pre-pandemic teams had low levels of communication and a high amount (greater than 70 percent, with the global average today at 52 percent) of focus time, they’re likely to continue to behave in that manner today.
Companies need to ensure that these patterns are not simply exacerbating previous issues. If an organization had poor internal dynamics pre-pandemic, continuing those patterns would be a mistake. Working from home in this case doesn’t fix these dynamics, it only hides it. Companies need to identify what wasn’t working before so those patterns don’t continue.
Many teams, in fact most according to our analyses, do not fit into the categories identified above. These teams have seen significant negative impacts from working from home. As companies figure out what workplace strategy to use moving forward, they need to consider that the pre-pandemic rules may have changed. For example, previous meta analyses showed definitively that working from home more than two and a half days per week significantly impacted not just that employee’s network but their whole team. Is that still the case? It may be that the collective experience of working from home has shifted that distribution, and so post pandemic three or even four days a week working from home may not make much of an impact. It’s here that hard data from workplace strategy pilots can show how an organization will change in the future under different working models.
Companies need to identify what wasn’t working before so those patterns don’t continue.
One of our customers started running pilots in their Asian offices, as health conditions allowed, to start the process of understanding these long term changes. From pre-pandemic data they know that the more their salespeople communicate with engineers the more they sell, and in under a WFH regime that communication had precipitously declined. While they aren’t able to bring everyone back to the office full time, they were able to bring some salespeople and some engineers back to the office once a week on a rotating basis. Surprisingly, that one day a week increased interaction between these teams by over 26 percent not just on that one day but across the entire week. Importantly, sales teams that didn’t return to the office didn’t see any change in communication.
This illustrates that the rules of the workplace may change post COVID and the importance of data and testing to identify what works and what doesn’t. It’s feasible that other teams might not see this benefit unless they’re together longer. Some groups of workers, such as new employees, also might need more in person interaction for a longer period of time to establish networks that can survive working remotely. The answers will differ for each organization, and indeed for different teams within organizations as well. Subjective individual experiences, while useful to holistically understand the work experience, are no substitute for hard data when making workplace decisions that affect thousands of people. Organizations owe it to their people to be methodical, quick, and data-driven in their workplace approach to create an effective and positive working environment for the long term.