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  • Mike J. Walker

Episode 25: The Future of Work

Updated: Jun 26


In this episode I talk the impacts of COVID-19 on the Future of Work. As COVID hit various regions in the world, and with it regulations meant to prevent it from spreading, companies have had to face a level of uncertainty never seen before.

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A "New Normal" for Workers

Most business were required to find ways to keep operating while their employees were not allowed to go to the office anymore. Some companies even had to rethink how or even whether to operate at all (restaurants, airlines).


For the ones that were in a position to adapt their operating models, they had to consider all of the implications and challenges of doing so, not only from a professional perspective, but also to consider the personal and psychological impact of such changes for their employees




Just in the first few months of 2020, what started as an isolated Chinese health crisis turned into a global pandemic that has significantly altered the global economy. This level of impact hasn’t been seen for more than a century with the Spanish Flu in 1918 and the US Great Depression in the 1930s.

Very simply, we don't have a playbook for this. We are in the midst of not one but for four crises:

  1. Health crisis

  2. Economic crisis

  3. Social crisis

  4. Geo-political crisis

As companies adjust to the reality that the sudden shift to remote work we experienced in March and April of 2020 is unlikely to shift back with anything like the same suddenness, leaders are faced with a new challenge: how to make remote work a permanent and productive part of their long-term workforce strategies.


The pandemic has forced nearly two-thirds of Americans to work remotely, making it clear just how much work can get done from home, even despite the presence of children.In the past, remote employees have had a bad reputation. Many employers believed their workforce would be too easily distracted at home, where their managers couldn't keep an eye on their direct reports.

Trends of webcams and laptops are selling out, because everyone is now transitioning their employee town halls, all-hands calls, and customer meetings to a virtual format. At Microsoft we've seen large surges in demand for Stream (video streaming service). Microsoft has also had to raise the participant limit from 10,000 participants to 100,000 as more companies look to have larger meetings and events.

So how long do we think we will continue to operate in this mode or when restrictions and the global pandemic is over, how will we work?

It’s clear to me there will be a new normal...

Observations

As companies and their workers adjust to the reality of the sudden shift to remote work I've observed the following:


Observation #1: Working from home may just be here to stay



GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com data shows that regular work-at-home, among the non-self-employed population, has grown by 173% since 2005, 11% faster than the rest of the workforce. Telecommuting in the US has seen a 115% increase in the past decade. These stats only prove that telework is rising in popularity every year and is likely to continue growing.


Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, in a study done by Buffer.com about the state of remote work in 2019, 99% of the interviewees reported that they would like, at least once in their career, to be able to work off-site. This enormous figure not only proves that remote work is now immensely popular but also that it is not just a fading trend. Moreover, the respondents are very likely to recommend remote work to their friends and family, solidifying the statistic further.


Many current employees are willing to change workplaces if it means working remotely. A report by Zapier.com published at the end of 2019 revealed that about 74% of the workforce would prefer to quit a job for one that offers remote positions. A recent Gartner poll also showed that 48% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19 versus 30% before the pandemic.


Another aspect here is a Finacial one. Remote workers save more money compared to office workers. A study done by Global Workplace Analytics found that remote workers can save from $2,000 to $7,000 every year. Saving money is definitely one of the biggest motivators to work remotely. Remote workers save on: commuting, clothing, food, and child care.



Observation #2: A rise of “hybrid” in-office and remote based companies


The hybrid worker is a mix of the remote worker (who is at the home office all the time) and the other a traditional office worker. They are a mix between the two other groups, meaning they spend part of their time working in the office and part of their time working elsewhere. Hybrid employees can choose to work however and wherever they’re most productive. They’ll use a combination of face-to-face meetings and video conferencing and messaging tools to communicate with their colleagues.



For more information on this observation there is actually a great article that I think will do it the most justice. Check out, Equipping Your Office for The “Work From Anywhere” Movement.



Observation #3: There is a disturbance in the work/life balance


The days of logging off at the end of the workday and focusing on other things until morning, already dwindling, might be gone for good. I don't think it's just me, but most people I talk to are working more than ever.



Observation #4: There is a downside to remote meetings.



People are reporting that remote meetings create more fatigue than in-person meetings

reduced nonverbal cues that inhibit the ability to “read people” in a conversation

need for sustained attention.



"The Brady Bunch" affect is in full swing. It's essentially what I'm finding with all the pressures to perform "showing" that you are paying attention for others. I need a mental break just thinking about this!



Observation #5: Remote workers are more productive compared to office workers.



Productivity studies have revealed that working from home has helped employees to get more out of their workday. A study done by Stanford showed that remote workers were about 13% more productive than their traditional office colleagues.


People are developing new work practices for more effective remote meetings

In-meeting chat has become an important form of collaboration, creating new challenges and opportunities


Recommendations

  1. Establish a routine. I would advise you to keep your normal / pre-pandemic routine with some slight modifications. Try to keep the timing for meals, personal activity like workouts, and family time blocked. I’ve personally used this approach when traveling for extended periods. Your modified schedule will bring you back to a sense of normalcy. For me it's: first thing in the AM I exercise, take a morning shower, get dressed in business etire all before my first meeting. Then I take a lunch, even if it's venturing to my kitchen and sitting out on my back deck. In the afternoon I try to get a walk in while I'm on a call or just taking a mental break.

  2. Make a dedicated space. Find an ideal space of running your business from home. Pick a quiet place you can make your own. A dedicated workspace will make you more productive and will just make your days at the remote office more enjoyable.

  3. Insert a little humor and fun into the day. In one study at the University of Warwick, they measured the impact of happiness on employee productivity and found a 12% spike in productivity among happy workers and a 10% drop among unhappy workers. Embrace the peek we now have into one another’s lives and get creative about replicating on-screen the casual contact and natural conversations that happen when we meet in-person. One of our teams recently hosted a pet parade to give participants a short break from the content. Another team conducted an in-home scavenger hunt and created a model with found objects.

  4. Prep is more important that the meeting you are prepping for. Ensure that you have the right inputs to enable participants to meet the session’s objectives. Share the purpose, objectives, and ground rules in the invitation so everyone is clear before they accept the call. Consider what can happen before and after the meeting, what work is synchronous or asynchronous, and what work requires the full group versus a subset.

  5. Be aware of virtual meeting fatigue. Numerous studies (here, here, and here) have identified reasons that videoconference meetings may cause fatigue, including reduced nonverbal cues that inhibit the ability to “read people” in a conversation, the need for sustained attention, the pressure to perform paying attention for others, low media quality, and the fact that crowded remote meetings require cognitive multitasking. A study from our Human Factors team which measured EEG and heart rate of 12 employees from the leadership team found that brainwave markers show significantly higher levels of stress in video meetings as compared to typical non-meeting work, especially in teams who had collaborated face-to-face prior to collaborating via video. Further, fatigue due to concentration begins to increase 30-40 minutes into video meetings. Looking at days filled with video meetings, dramatic changes in brainwave patterns, consistent with being over-worked or stressed, begin to set in after about two hours.

  6. Communicate effectively. There is some debate about the broad application of Albert Mehrabian’s classic 55/38/7 formula, which attributes 55 percent of communication to body language, 38 percent to the tone of voice, and 7 percent to the actual words spoken. But it is universally agreed that nonverbal communication is important. As you set ground rules for the meeting while planning it, it is vital that turning cameras on should be one of them.

  7. Ask the experts. As a remote worker for over a decade there are certainly tip and tricks to virtual work. Be sure to ask friends and co-workers about their virtual experiences. Another resource is a webinar series from the Microsoft experts remote communications like Teams. They share how MSFT upgraded Microsoft employees to Teams, and how Microsoft uses Teams to power inclusive, modern meetings.

  8. Less can be more. Strive to cut meetings in half or more. So if you usually setup a 60 minute meeting, make it 30 minutes. Likewise with a 30 minute meeting, make it 15 mins. The good news is that I'm actually observing people setting up shorter meetings (30 minutes or less) In particular, telemetry data from the Microsoft Modern Workplace Transformation team shows that 1:1s increased by 18 percent and check-ins and team social meetings grew by 10 percent-- half of these new meetings were recurring. Hallway and casual interaction, some of which is related to coordination of work or sharing of status, has also been replaced by meetings. Taken together, this suggests that many of the short hallway conversations, or dropping by someone’s desk, are now taking place through short video or audio calls.


I hope this helps everyone!


See you in the next one...



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