- Why should I read this? We’ve read WeWork, Qualtrics and Miro’s recent reports on remote work so you don’t have to (we did something similar with studies from Buffer, Gitlab and Spotify earlier this year). Here are some key takeaways for you and your team, particularly as you consider any return to the office over the next few months. For more on this topic, check out the Managing Remote Teams section of our Manager Guide.
- Hybrid work and the return to the office: the move to hybrid work makes sense - overwhelmingly employees want some remote work (97.6% - Buffer) and some office (93% - Qualtrics). The tricky bit is how much, as everyone wants something different. Companies who embrace hybrid work face a choice of a free-for-all where empllyees come in when they want, or a more structured system where teams come in on specific days. Those in free-for-all mode will face more pressing questions over equality of employee experience and opportunities for collaboration.
- Productivity: Qualtrics echoes other research (Gitlab) to suggest that remote work has led to increased individual productivity. However, for some, it seems clear that this increase is derived from longer hours rather than improved efficiency. Miro found that 33% of its respondents were awake for less than 20 mins before beginning work. The issue of individuals’ pandemic productivity and how it intersects with team collaboration and overall productivity also still seems underexplored.
- Wellbeing and mental health: the mental health challenges of remote work in the pandemic have been better-documented elsewhere. However, Miro further noted that a lack of employee validation may contribute to the pandemic’s pressures, suggesting managers should renew efforts to make sure employees get any credit they deserve. Qualtrics also highlighted the significant wellbeing benefits of making sure employees have clarity regarding their company’s pandemic planning. The same point was highlighted by Shopify’s CTO earlier in the year, and reinforces the need for clear communication with employees, even as the effects of the pandemic begin to ease in certain parts of the world.
- Relocation: Miro’s research found 16% of employees were ‘very likely’ to relocate if remote work options were extended (echoing Gitlab’s 18% result from a similar question). Managers will need to make sure they’re having these discussions with affected employees sooner rather than later to avoid disruption.
A couple of months ago we published a popular article on remote work where we looked through various companies’ research studies so you didn’t have to, and pulled out some of the key takeaways.
As before, we’ve approached these studies cautiously. Although they involved 6,000 respondents (note, all in North America) and involved established research firms, some of the conclusions are, shall we say, favourable to the companies involved. You will be shocked to find that WeWork found a significant number of respondents would prefer a third working location that isn’t the home or the office. Or that Qualtrics, provider of customer employee engagement software, discovered that now was ‘a unique opportunity to listen directly to customers and employees’.
The biggest reliability red flag came in Miro’s work... apparently 38% of their respondents claimed to have ‘never spaced out during a meeting’. Sure you didn’t.
Nevertheless, if we dig behind the headline numbers, and compare the three reports with our previous article, we find some interesting conclusions on the future of work which we think are worth noting as you plan the management of your teams.
Hybrid Work and the Return to the Office
In the two months since we wrote our last article, the US has turned a corner in its battle with the pandemic and the discussion has moved onto hybrid work.
This focus makes sense.
The option to work remotely is overwhelmingly popular (Buffer found 97.6% of the 2000+ they surveyed would like to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their careers). Yet Qualtrics found 93% of their respondents wanted at least some time in an office with other people.
If you definitely want to work remotely some of the time, but also definitely want an office some of the time, hybrid work it is.
If that seems too straightforward, it is. The findings in the WeWork report suggest that although people want hybrid work, when they want it is varied, posing significant challenges for team coordination and company culture.
Beyond the ‘I love the office’ crew (34%), there are clearly significant differences in how long people want to spend with each other:
Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford who’s been studying remote work, came to the same conclusion:
‘In survey data I've collected, there's incredible variation in how many days people want to work from home… it’s almost a uniform distribution’ Nick Bloom, Stanford
He says that companies therefore face a hybrid work decision between giving employees total choice in when they come in, or a more centralised process where the company stipulates the specific days that certain teams spend in the office.
Over time, he’s come round to the latter option for the following reasons:
- Split experience: if you allow people to sporadically choose, he argues this will broadly end up creating two groups - those who are predominantly in the office, and those who aren’t. These groups will have different experiences and different opportunities. A study he did found that people that were randomized to work from home after 21 months had almost half the promotion rate of people that were in the office.
- Diversity: the effect of the above is that over time, progression in your organisation is influenced by who comes into the office and who doesn’t. This is typically biased against parents, and particularly working women. As he says, ‘What this will lead to is—five to 10 years from now, you'll have a much higher promotion rate of single young men than married women with young kids’.
- It’s hard to go back: he notes that if you pick total choice, and it doesn’t work, it’s very hard to row back - particularly because some employees will likely have moved. However, if you go with the centralised option, you can still iterate from there if you want to.
Food for thought as you plan your own hybrid future.
Productivity up but where’s it coming from?
The Qualtrics report echoes other studies in claiming that the majority of employees (51%) and managers (55%) believe that individuals have been more productive whilst remote working. The WeWork report is more cagey - productivity is mentioned only 6 times in the whole report. It only goes as far as saying ‘productivity has generally not declined due to remote working.’ Miro doesn’t address the question at all.
If we dig deeper, the Qualtrics survey is revealing on where employees believe those productivity gains have come from:
It’s not clear whether ‘no commuting time’ is helpful because it creates space for rest or because people are just doing more work in those hours. But the Miro report notes that 33% of its respondents were awake for less than 20 minutes before beginning work, suggesting that some pandemic productivity gains are just coming from working longer.
This is supported elsewhere in the report (and by the Buffer report we covered last time).
None of the reports really addressed the issue of potential gains in individual productivity coming at the cost of team collaboration, which we highlighted in our last article.
Continuing Wellbeing and Mental Health Challenges
Given that some of the main challenges with remote work are setting boundaries, burnout and mental health, it was surprising to see relatively little attention paid to the topic by Qualtrics and WeWork. In a hilarious paragraph, WeWork basically acknowledges there are challenges but that the solution is… you guessed it… a WeWork:
Miro’s report spends more time on acknowledging the issues, with 35% of respondents claiming that their mental health has declined as they worked from home during the pandemic.
Interestingly, the report discusses the role that validation plays in employee mental health. Their research showed an increase in empoyees doubting their accomplishments whilst working remotely, which may be food for thought in how managers give credit for work, and how frequently.
We also want to highlight the role of uncertainty in employee wellbeing. At an event in January this year, we listened to the CTO of Shopify describe how he thought one of the most important things they did for their employees was provide clarity around their plans for the pandemic so they could plan the rest of their lives.
The Qualtrics report provides some data to back this up:
‘Employees at companies that have been proactive about announcing post-pandemic plans are 88% more likely (62% vs 33%) to say their overall well-being has improved than employees at companies who have not shared plans’
If you’re looking for ways you can help your team as a manager, try stability and certainty.
Employee Relocation Risk
We noted in the last report that although the numbers of employees looking to relocate to remote work seemed reasonably low (18%), it could still be incredibly disruptive to open those discussions with that many in your company.
These numbers are echoed in the Miro report:
The reports may be different but our advice is the same. If you have any employees who you think may want to take advantage of relocating, open these discussions with them sooner rather than later.