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A Window Into Now: Insights into remote working in Covid-19 times

Updated: May 25

The results of our COVID-19 home working survey are in, and leaders – especially those looking for a formula to make remote working successful - might want to listen up.


Our research of over 200 people shows that when it comes to managing your teams in lockdown, there is no one size fits all approach.


The data did reveal certain trends – key differences in how men, women, parents, young people and those who've previously worked from home are experiencing this strange new world, which we're going to explore in this article. These insights can provide starting points for conversations in your team or organisation.


However, take these insights as guideposts rather than gospel – and if you want to really understand what's happening in your organisation right now, you might want to do a bespoke version the survey within your organisation (Get in touch with Elloa, our Head of Consulting, to find out more: elloa@theworkpsychologists.com)

Here, though, are the key insights, which can serve as conversation starters and points for reflection...



Remote Working/Working at Home Survey – Key insights:



Image credit: Aleks Marinkovic via Unsplash.com

Overall, the quantitative data painted a fairly positive picture of how people are faring. Once you dig into the qualitative data however, a much more nuanced and complex picture emerges. For example:

  • Employers need to pay attention to their 20-30 year olds as they fare pretty poorly across most categories 

  • People who have previously worked from home and doing much better overall than those who have not

  • Large gender differences are clear, with men feeling much better than women across all categories except one

  • Fifty percent of people are struggling with feeling isolated (especially those who don't have kids at home)

  • However, while parents might not necessarily feel isolated, four out of five parents are finding it difficult to manage home learning, childcare and work

  • Paradoxically - people over the age of 30 with young children are feeling much more energised across the board 


Those are some key insights about the various demographics we surveyed.


We also asked about productivity, meetings, relationships between managers and their teams, and what people most want from their organisations right now.


Here are some headlines from those findings:

  • A whopping 75% of people want Zoom meetings to last for 30 minutes or less (there's some lovely evidence from neuroscience as to why this might be, which we share below)

  • People are desperate for a break in between meetings – another good reason not to have them last for a full hour

  • Many managers have a steep learning curve ahead of them and need to adapt their management style so it suits working in a remote team: we're not going back to the way things used to be anytime soon.

  • Managers also need to pay attention to mental health and the various anxieties and concerns their direct reports are having about their future

  • There are struggles with productivity, with only 18% saying they have increased in productivity during lockdown.

  • People overall really like working from home but it's more for personal than work reasons

  • People are overwhelmingly happy to have lost their daily commute, with many stating they have got an extra three to four hours of their life back every day

  • Some issues around toxic management and culture need addressing, particularly trust

  • People really want more learning opportunities, but only if they don't have kids 

  • The number one thing people want from their organisations is better communication about what is happening in the organisation.

Overall, what does this tell us?


Well, while some people are feeling okay, this is an intensely difficult time for many employees. People are concerned about job security; the health of themselves and their loved ones; what work will be like when we eventually go back. This anxiety is driving some people to work too hard and others to become depressed and struggle to find their motivation to get up and work every day.


There is a lot that organisations and managers in particular can do to support people right now.




The Findings


So there's the overview. Let's now take a deeper look at the results.


- People's Greatest Challenge...



Feeling isolated is, overall, the greatest difficulty for both men and women right now. This is understandable; we're transitioning out of lockdown in the UK as we publish these results, but when we did the survey, people had been living in fairly strict lockdown for around five weeks, with no clear end in sight. People have not been able to see friends, family or colleagues in person, and have been stuck in a groundhog day. The isolation is as much an internal psychological experience for some people as it is an external, physical one, which is why some people can feel isolated (and lonely) even if they're living with other people such as family or housemates.


Women are struggling more than men with each area of difficulty.

A lot of women who shared they feel overwhelmed wrote about missing human contact, missing their colleagues, and struggling with the boundaries between work and home. As one woman wrote:


"I miss people, I miss connection, it's hard to keep up momentum on your own all the time"

Interestingly, almost all of the men who listed that they are feeling overwhelmed and isolated were nevertheless very positive in the overall score rating how they currently feel, with many comments about productivity having gone up and there being greater freedom to work as and how they want to.


We're speculating here, but it is possible that men generally find it harder to acknowledge what feels vulnerable, so their initial positive scores disguised what is really going on.


Interestingly, the data showed that the most engaged, motivated people right now appear to be men over the age of 30 who have previously worked from home and who have young children... So if you're looking to cultivate engagement right now, ask this demographic what's fuelling them!

It's also possible of course that women are simply having a more difficult time than men.


Women, after all, tend to have greater responsibilities on their shoulders alongside their work roles: the emotional labour of ensuring that all their loved ones, including those in the local community, are safe and well; keeping the home clean and completing chores; and of course having to manage childcare and home learning alongside their jobs.


There are clear benefits for all demographics right now, even for those who are feeling overwhelmed: the opportunity to work more flexibly, spend more time at home (including with one's immediate family), and not having to spend time and money on the commute. The following comments really hit home:





- Productivity

We asked how working at home has impacted people’s productivity.


While 18 percent of respondents (40 people out of 220) said their productivity had improved, this means that for 82 percent of respondents, productivity has remained the same at best, is fluctuating, or has gone down at worst.





- Outlook, Motivation and Energy


Are you surprised to see that 51 percent of people feel motivated and energised to do their job right now? In a world where engagement figures are notoriously low (35% of people in the US described themselves as 'highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to' their roles in 2019 - and this was a record high), and given that we're in the middle of the biggest global crisis in living memory, this might be somewhat surprising.


Then again, as many psychologists and writers have been stating in the last couple of months, the cultivation of meaning is a powerful tool for developing resilience in challenging times – and work is one of the main areas for many of us where we do that.


It's important however to take the whole picture into account; if as a leader you ignore the 14 percent of people who do not feel energised and motivated right now (or whatever that figure actually is in your organisation), you are essentially saying that there is a cohort of people whose mood, attitude and wellbeing you do not care about supporting.


Bear in mind too that in different organisations, that number may well be much higher...



- Parents


Overall, parents of young children reported feeling more energised and able to do their jobs than those without children, but less able to strike a balance between work and leisure time, feeling very pulled between the two and struggling to balance childcare, home learning and work. Four out of five parents raised this as a primary concern.


At first glance, it seems strange that parents would be feeling more energised than non-parents, especially given the extra responsibilities and competing demands on their time.


Our take on this is that parents are so used to task-switching that they might be coping better with the juggle. We also think that for many parents, work offers mental stimulation and the chance to experience a side of themselves that is not 'just' a parent. Work, particularly for mothers, can be an invaluable forum to re-forge or reclaim other aspects of their identity.


Of course, having to try to do a full-time job and take care of kids full time is highly challenging. As one parent wrote: "Life feels VERY intense right now."


The takeaway: Parents might be feeling more energised, but they are also likely feeling the pressure of having to school, run the home and work – all under one roof, with little to no respite.



- Young people (Millennials and Gen Z)


As you can easily see from the above graph, people in the 20-30 age group overwhelmingly indicate that they need greater input and more support and help than any other age group.


The workload result is fascinating – no other age group indicated that this is a priority, suggesting that people earlier in their careers either haven't yet developed the skills to feel comfortable managing their workload alone, or perhaps feel more comfortable asking for support, something that older people who are further along in their careers perhaps find more of a struggle to ask for. It could also suggest that this age group agrees (or does not object explicitly enough) to taking on more work than they can reasonably manage. Whatever the cause, it's clear that managers of younger millennials and those early in their careers need to pay close attention.


The same is true of almost every other category. While younger people want more support, they also want to be trusted more. It could be that assumptions are being made by managers about what the younger people on their teams can and cannot handle; it seems clear there is a hunger to learn, a desire for more autonomy and a request for support. These are not mutually exclusive.


Given the global shift towards more flexible ways of working, the desire for greater flexibility is unsurprising.


The takeaway: Senior leaders and those involved in internal comms should take note that younger people – who potentially are in more junior positions, being earlier in their careers – want to know more about what's happening. Greater transparency across organisations will pay dividends. If you haven't read Kim Scott's fabulous book, 'Radical Candour', now might be a good time to check it out.




- Managers and Trust


The survey unearthed a bit of an issue with trust – mostly by managers. People reported that meetings are being used to check up on staff because managers don’t trust that the staff are working hard enough from home:

“Feel that check in meetings are being put in to ensure productivity as there is limited trust employees will get work done.”

“There are a lot of checks in from my manager… [I] find it hard after the calls to find the motivation to carry out the tasks required.”


This less-than-complimentary comment sums up what a lot of people might be feeling:


"My mental health has never been better. [...] My director likes to play mind games and is passive aggressive. I feel so much better away from him."

The tension between managers and employees is a two-way street, and managers are also feeling pressured. As one candidly wrote:


"The main issue [I'm facing overall] is having faith in my employees to be doing what they are supposed to instead of watching sneaky episodes on Netflix.”

For many managers this is the first time they have had to trust others and not have visibility that people are completing tasks properly. It’s unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and they are not sure how to navigate it.


The takeaway: Managers probably need – and in our survey, are asking for – training in remote team management so that they don't have to operate like Big Brother. Organisations also need to think about how to prepare their managers for the future – a future in which working at the office is a thing of the past.





- Meetings


Ah, the dreaded topic of meetings – a ubiquitous yet notoriously draining part of people's work day (perhaps even more so in lockdown, with the depleting effects of meeting virtually).


We wrote previously that people are drowning in meetings, and some people are. But what people most want to change is how long meetings take. Most meetings are scheduled to last an hour, but a ginormous 75% of people overall said they want meetings to last 30 minutes at the most.


Let's rephrase this: out of 220 respondents, just fifteen people said they want meetings to last for an hour, and three additional people said they want meetings to last for over an hour. Thirty eight people said 45 minutes was the ideal length – presumably offering them a chance for a break in between one meeting and the next.


Meanwhile, a resounding 120 people (58%) said 30 minutes would be ideal, leaving them time to actually do their work, and a further 43 people want to push it even further and make meetings just 15 minutes long.


We didn't dig into the 'why' behind people's answers, but as psychologists, we can hazard a few educated guesses as to why this might be.

  • Firstly, meeting online is exhausting – more so than meeting in person. It's harder to read the room, and the loss of physical proximity, the varying levels of tech literacy, the presence of your own face on screen, the artificiality, the slight sense of exposure about your personal space, the way the medium doesn't allow for multiple conversations to take place simultaneously, the way interruptions feel different, and the sense of being stuck in your chair, unable to transition from one meeting to another... all these factors add up to Zoom (or Microsoft Teams) being more draining than meeting face to face.

  • Secondly, neuroscience research demonstrates that the harder people have to work to concentrate – and online, you really do – the shorter the period of time for effective working. This might explain people's desire for shorter meetings.

  • Third, back-to-back meetings and poor scheduling isn't allowing people to take a breather, physically get up and stretch, take care of their physical well-being and mentally defrag and regroup. We suspect this is why 75% of people overall do not want sixty minute meetings.

  • Fourth, online meetings highlight gaps in people's skill set when it comes to chairing meetings. Online meetings become more stressful when they are poorly planned and involve too many people. As David McQueen said recently on LinkedIn: "If you were crap at running meetings before, then Zoom has just amplified it."

  • Finally, it's hard for parents to find activities that occupy their kids for more than 30 minutes, so shorter meetings increase the likelihood of not being interrupted. We could all do to remember that it's probably not as big of a deal to other people for a child to appear for a few moments on screen as it is if they're your child. It could actually increase the level of bonding in the team by enabling people to see the 'person behind the role.' It's somewhat vulnerable, and that creates connection.



Connecting in a virtual world


From yoga to online bake-off people are doing all sorts of activities to keep connected with their colleagues during lockdown. On average, people reported that they have enough opportunity to informally connect with their co-workers and this doesn’t change when we look at the data by age, gender, parental status, job type or how used to working from home they are.

Looking through the qualitative responses though, this average result hides a wide variety of different answers. Some parents are stressed by the expectation that they attend work events, for some people virtual gatherings for social purposes are pointless, enforced “fun”. For others, they are the lifeblood of what it means to be a work team.

Comments ranged from:

“Not sure I have this as a big need tbh. I would rather use the informal time to do my [own] extracurricular stuff”

To suggestions of karaoke, bake off, board games, informal whole company drinks and eating dinner together.


Put simply: everybody wants something different.


Some people complained that there are lots of events organised but people don’t turn up for them. Some people like small, informal events, some people need a quiz or a learning experience to focus on or they feel at a loss for what to say.


The learning here? Talk to your teams, offer what you can, get their feedback and don’t ostracise those who choose not to attend.

Looking to the future, what does virtual bonding look like? It will be hard to turn the tide on virtual working, this is a new reality and organisations need to find a way to motivate and cultivate the loyalties of mainly remote workers.



What people want from their organisations



Some funny ideas were submitted, including day drinking and even online orgies (we had quite the giggle imagining a Zoom orgy!), but jokers aside, here were people's top suggestions for what they most want from their organisations:

  • Childcare

  • Mental health support

  • Visibility on what is happening in the organisation (the comms issue highlighted earlier)

  • Time management – clearly starting and ending the work day, making time for self-care, not needing to be always on

  • Workload – some people want more, others can't keep up

  • Human interaction

  • Ergonomics – people are working on uncomfortable chairs and without desks, and it's affecting their physical health.



Limitations


We're aware that some of the phrasing of the questions produced data results that are somewhat surface level and don't give us a huge amount of depth, hence some of our speculations. That's why we're encouraging leaders to use these insights as food for thought and conversation starters rather than 'facts'.


It's also important to emphasise that at best, we glimpsed a snapshot in time, and that that particular moment has passed. The UK is easing out of lockdown and people's circumstances are changing. Schools are set to re-open shortly and parents are facing fresh dilemmas about whether to send their children back to school or not. In addition, many people are being un-furloughed and numerous workplaces are reopening.


We didn't survey by industry, which was an oversight, and it's possible that we didn't get any real insight into how people in certain industries are doing. We almost certainly didn't capture data about key workers, which perhaps speaks to the kind of organisations we typically work with (knowledge workers/ typically office-based), but which is also something for us to think about if we repeat the survey in a few weeks' time to gain longitudinal data.



Conclusion


The takeaway for leaders is clear: now more than ever, you must not make sweeping statements about how everyone is doing based on limited knowledge or a small sample. People’s experiences are varying wildly right now, and while some elements of home working have been highly beneficial for some, this has been an incredibly challenging and difficult time for others.


The only way to really know what is happening in your organisation is to ask people. Assumptions are dangerous at the best of times; right now, perhaps even more so.

Conversations, transparency, compassionate and curious leadership, and a willingness to really hear how people are doing are vital tools for leaders right now.


Never has business been more personal or more human.



And finally, an invitation


While writing up these survey results, it became obvious to us that they tell "a" story about life and work during lockdown, but not "the" story of any one organisation.


We've decided to offer five organisations the opportunity to use our survey for free, which will include a one hour debrief with one of our team. Why? Because we have a hunch this could be a really valuable service for organisations, and we want to test that assumption before we offer this as a paid service.


So, if you want to know rather than intuit what's happening for people in your organisation, drop Elloa, our Head of Consulting, an email on: elloa@theworkpsychologists.com



Footnotes


For those of you interested in the nuts and bolts, here they are...



The demographics: who responded to the survey

220 people participated in the survey, in the following demographic groups:

Gender

72% female (158 people)

27% male (60 people)

1% prefer not to say (2 people)

0% responded that their gender was not listed, so we will be talking throughout about men, women and both sexes.

Employment Status

Sixty-nine percent of respondents are in full-time employment (152 people): 71 percent of these are women, 29 percent are men.

Just under 10 percent of respondents are in part-time employment (21 people): 19 of these are women, 2 prefer not to say, and of the total, 13 people (62 percent) are parents.

21 per cent of people are self-employed (46 people): of these, sixty-five per cent of people are parents.

Parents

Overall, 41 percent of the people we surveyed are parents of at least one child under the age of sixteen: parents make up 26 percent of people in full-time employment, 62 percent of part-time employees, and 65 per cent of self-employed people.

We’ve highlighted previously that many parents are struggling, and this observation was reinforced by the findings.

Working at Home

Forty seven percent of people regularly worked from home before the pandemic, while 53 percent did not.

What we surveyed

We asked about a range of topics to get a holistic sense of how people are finding different aspects of their lives, including:

Productivity

Outlook and motivation

Work and leisure time balance

Future prospects

Health concerns

Overwhelm

Technology

Trust

Managing childcare and home schooling/home learning

Feeling isolated

Getting into a routine

Meetings

What people want and need from their employer.

The survey was open for two weeks.

© The Work Psychologists Ltd. 2020