Office work will never be the same

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A collage of people on video calls.

Zac Freeland/Vox

The pandemic brought us more meetings, longer hours, and remote everything.

When the world eventually opens back up after the Covid-19 pandemic, many parts of society, the economy, and the workplace will not be what we remember. For so-called knowledge workers, people whose jobs typically require analytical thinking as well as computers, not only will their offices look different, but the way in which they work will be altered, too. It might never be the same.

The giant forced experiment of remote working en masse brought about by the pandemic will likely last longer than many thought. Tech companies seem to be taking the concept especially seriously. Facebook recently told employees they could work from home for the rest of the year. Twitter and Square said they could do so indefinitely. But the trend extends well beyond Silicon Valley.

Of the 34 percent of workers who are estimated to be working from home, many will not go back. A survey of senior finance leaders by research firm Gartner found that 74 percent of organizations plan to shift some employees to remote work permanently. Consulting company Global Workplace Analytics estimates that when the pandemic is over, 30 percent of the entire workforce will work from home at least a couple times a week. Before the pandemic, that number was in the low single digits.

As this shift continues, technology plays an increasingly important role now that more knowledge workers have familiarized themselves with its benefits. That means video apps like Zoom and chat software like Slack should carry over into their regular day-to-day life after the pandemic. The way people meet — the medium as well as the length and purpose of meetings — could also evolve. On a very human note, the experience of living through a crisis together and the memory of seeing colleagues’ living rooms, as well as their kids and pets, could lead to a greater sense of empathy and even a permanent softening of workplace decorum.

All of this might inevitably add up to more jobs offering a better work-life balance and a more flexible office life. The ability to step out in the middle of the day to run errands or attend a child’s recital could be extended to more office workers and could be a stipulation of a knowledge-work job in the first place. And if that’s the case, this might just reverse the years-long trend of these jobs requiring moves to big, expensive cities.

For some, the promise of being able to work from anywhere — something touted almost as long as the internet has existed — could finally come to pass. If nothing else, the lessons learned from the pandemic will reshape the future of office work everywhere.

More reliance on tech even after we can go back to the office

The coronavirus pandemic has brought a new sense of purpose to workplace software like video conferencing and chat applications, including Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, and many others. This software helps employees collaborate on work previously done in person, and it became a business necessity during the lockdown when much of the world couldn’t go into the office. And thanks to that rapid adoption, as people return to the office, they’ll likely continue using this software and even use it in new ways.

“Conferencing and collaboration apps accelerated by a magnitude of two years,” Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at market research firm IDC, told Recode. “Collaboration software moved from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have.’”

Numbers from individual software companies bear out the growth. Slack added 9,000 new paid customers between the beginning of February and the end of March — an 80 percent increase over the full quarterly total for the preceding two quarters. Microsoft Teams announced recently that its daily active users grew 70 percent to 75 million in just one month. Google Meet topped 100 million daily Meet meeting participants last month, adding about 3 million new users per day. Zoom announced 300 million daily meeting participants at the end of April, up from 200 million at the beginning of the month.

While many are already familiar with these apps, it’s important to remember that hasn’t been the case in all offices.

“It’s easy to forget that not everyone is tech-savvy,” said Mike Gotta, research vice president for collaboration and social software at Gartner.

During the period of mandatory work from home, many have had to learn how to use these new apps, not to mention how to navigate a workday full of video meetings, digital chats, and more after-hours correspondence. Just as earlier adopters once did, the tens of millions of newcomers to this tech are bound to adapt to new workflows. In other words, now that everyone’s been forced to learn how to use them, these apps probably won’t go away when offices open back up.

And why should they? Productivity tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams can provide a more efficient way to communicate. They centralize communication and make it easier for everyone at a company to access assets, like documents and spreadsheets. The software also provides a trail so that people can look up discussions that have already happened.

“IDC research shows that collaborative applications, when supported with a culture of collaboration, provide real-time information to users, save personal and group time, boost productivity, drive faster outcomes, and result in a workforce feeling more connected to each other,” Kurtzman said.

There are some downsides. Depending on who you are and how you use the software, it can also be its own drag on your productivity. The dramatic increase in usage of these services has also revealed more than a few privacy and security concerns, some of which have already been addressed.

Regardless, the longer people rely on this sort of software, the more permanent it will become. But it will still take some time for both employees and their bosses to adjust to new ways of working. As Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, put it, “This is not a switch, this is a dial.”

The transition to remote work has also piqued some companies’ interest in surveillance tech for employees. Worried that not having people in the office could lead to the leaking of sensitive information or just more goofing off, employers are using software like Aware for compliance, as well as ActivTrak, Time Doctor, or Teramind for productivity monitoring.

“There’s an uneasiness of how do you monitor employee productivity,” Gotta said. “There’s a balancing act between surveillance and managing status and progress toward goals.”

It’s also more common from organizations that aren’t as familiar with working from home.

“A lot is a fear of loss of control,” Stephanie Wernick Barker, president of national staffing agency Mondo, told Recode. “It’s a big adjustment for people with old-school corporate values.”

That could present a difficult transition, as this type of surveillance can also backfire by making employees feel bad, both about themselves and their employers. It’s also a lot of added work for management.

“If we’re talking about a supervisory style of management, I think that type of organization will struggle with the work-from-home environment,” Raúl Castañón-Martínez, a senior analyst at 451 Research, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence, told Recode. “That’s the type of organization you expect to be concerned with surveillance and monitoring employees.”

More meetings and longer days

After knowledge workers left the office during the pandemic and increasingly relied on technology, the layout of the workday changed — and not always for the better. For some, one unexpected and seemingly negative effect of this has been more meetings.

The overall number of scheduled meetings went up 7 percent from February 1 to March 1, according to the productivity software company Time is Ltd. The productivity software company arrived at this stat after looking at schedules from a number of international companies in Central and Eastern Europe that were ordered to work from home at the same time. Time is Ltd. has visibility into calendars as well as workplace productivity software of their clients, so it could see that there were more meetings overall, not just more meetings conducted online.

In total, online meetings nearly doubled from February to April, while offline meetings obviously plummeted. Time is Ltd. also found that meetings got bigger by 18 percent between February and April, which means more people were invited to each event. Mercifully, the average length of meetings went down by about 10 minutes each. While these statistics come from a subset of companies in one region of the world, there’s evidence that the culture of meetings is undergoing changes elsewhere.

Looking at a 300-person team at Microsoft, Spataro has seen weekly meeting time jump 10 percent since working from home due to the coronavirus, which adds up to about three additional meetings per week per employee. The Microsoft team also saw an 18 percent jump in one-on-one meetings and a 10 percent growth in social meetings like virtual lunches and happy hours.

It’s hard to know if this is a good thing. Meetings are known to sap productivity, but with the coronavirus, the situation is a little more complicated. More people working from home has meant that once-spontaneous interactions — talking to a colleague while grabbing coffee or lunch, for instance — must be relegated to more formalized settings.

“What we’ve found anecdotally, you end up having to create scheduled meetings to compensate for serendipity you’re missing,” Spataro said of his own team.

There’s also the enormity of what’s going on, which we all have to talk out: a deadly pandemic changing nearly every aspect of the way we live and work. Then there’s the economic fallout from the pandemic, which is causing companies to cut costs, lay off workers, and change the way business is done. And many companies have forced all of their workers to work from home for the first time, so there are a lot of kinks to work out. Trying to talk to each other more seems like a natural outcome.

Ellen Faye, a productivity leadership coach, thinks that the growth in meetings is a good thing for the time being. She says that due to the situation, people are attending meetings they may have skipped before, and increased communication leads to more closely aligned organizations.

“Building cohesion and connectivity intrinsically motivates people to do better work,” Faye said, adding that these interactions also help combat feelings of isolation.

Working from home, Faye says, has given many people time they didn’t have before that would have been spent on a commute or distractions in the office.

“There’s nothing else sucking up my time or to take me off course, so now I have opened up six hours a week I didn’t have before,” Faye said. “Because meetings are planned and not impromptu, I think people are able to be more productive.”

But it’s worth highlighting that the growth in meetings has mostly been a response to the extraordinary situation we’re experiencing. Aspects of it are likely temporary, too.

“Many, many companies had to pivot hard and fast,” Kate Duchene, CEO of consulting firm Resources Global Professionals, told Recode. “We were all hyper-concerned about productivity, connectivity, and accountability, so we scheduled the hell out of each other.”

“Now we’re taking stock: Do we need all those meetings and do they all need to be video? I think we will see the pendulum moderate.”

It’s important to note that many have felt adverse effects from the increase in video calls, what some have called “Zoom fatigue,” in which people find the avalanche of video chats and their attendant annoyances very draining. It’s also a stark reminder of all we’re missing as the pandemic prevents us from actually being with people. So that spike in meetings, it might be temporary, too. According to the data from Time is Ltd., the number of meetings in April went down and was only 2 percent higher than in February.

What might not go back to normal, though, is the extension of our workday. Several data sources show that the typical workday is getting longer. People are signing on earlier and answering questions and queries later, thanks in part to the software that makes all this possible. You’re not leaving to go home. You’re already home.

“What I’ve seen points toward longer workdays — earlier start and later end times, and more breaks in between,” said Jory MacKay, editor at RescueTime, a company that analyzes productivity and software use at businesses.

A Microsoft study of global Teams usage found that the average time between a person’s first and last usage of Teams grew by more than an hour from the beginning to the end of March. Of course, longer workdays don’t mean people are working more.

As MacKay mentioned, these days are broken up by bigger breaks, as people are now able to run errands and care for children during working hours.

Conducting more of our work lives online has also meant more time spent on work devices. According to data from RescueTime, total time on desktops and PCs grew 12 percent to seven hours each day, after mid-March. That adds up to almost an extra hour a day on work devices. This might be a permanent change, too.

“These numbers aren’t likely to go back down, based on data from China and Italy who were hit earlier and hard,” MacKay said. “China device time is up an hour since early January and hasn’t gone down. In Italy, daily average time jumped from six to 7.5 hours from the start of February and has largely stayed there.”

All of this can make it difficult for people to feel like they can leave work and tune out.

“You have to figure out how to make tech work for you,” Faye said. “Otherwise, productivity suffers, and your stress level goes through the roof.”

The coronavirus could make us better at collaborating and living farther apart

Even with the stressors, there are positive ways these tech-focused workdays are affecting teamwork. You can’t see your colleague wearing a stained hoodie in their bedroom while getting Zoombombed by their 8-year-old without feeling a bit closer to them. Similarly, commiserating with your colleagues about the whims of your bosses amid a global crisis can be a singular bonding experience. All of it makes us better at working together.

“We have something in common with everyone on the planet we didn’t have two months ago. It gives us something we share. It humanizes us,” Kurtzman said. “The sense of community is now to the point where the tech is ready to support authentic community.”

As Duchene put it, the situation is “creating deeper and fun connections in ways that never show up at an office.”

These deeper relationships, in conjunction with more flexible work processes, enable something called “agile work.” Vaunted by startups and Silicon Valley companies, this buzzy idea implies that a culture of flexibility, efficiency, and creativity leads to a workforce that’s empowered and unencumbered. This new way of operating is less hierarchical and more collaborative, and it allows people to do better work.

“What we’re seeing right now is a transition to a different type to work and different way of organizing work,” said Castañón-Martínez. “There is a better understanding of the goals that the group has to deliver, a better understated of what the individual contributes.”

Part of what’s enabling this shift is a sense of freedom enabled by remote work, something people have been anticipating since the early days of the internet. A massive push into remote work could truly make it possible to work from anywhere and on your own schedule. It was already starting to happen pre-pandemic, but the coronavirus could provide the push necessary to make it a more widely adopted reality.

“There’s a shift to focus more on results and outcomes versus time spent at a desk and standard business hours,” Brie Reynolds, career development manager at FlexJobs, said. “The tide finally turned the way it was already headed.”

FlexJobs, a job site that specializes in remote working arrangements, saw a 3 percent increase in job listings on its site from February to March. This is especially notable since listings for jobs in general on places like LinkedIn and Indeed have declined precipitously since the pandemic began. Some 70 percent of fast-growth companies have employees work remotely at least part of the week, according to a pre-pandemic survey done by 451 Research.

“Companies that are more tech-savvy and forward-looking had more acceptance of flexible work situations,” 451’s Castañón-Martínez said. “Now it’s not just forward-looking companies, it’s everyone.”

The upsides to working remotely can be significant for employees. Flexible office arrangements, for example, mean that Silicon Valley engineers don’t have to pay unaffordable Silicon Valley prices and can make their money go a lot further in suburban or rural areas, where the cost of living is lower. There’s already evidence that the pandemic is causing some to leave urban areas, and the shift toward more remote work might mean they never go back.

It’s important to remember that all these changes and their benefits will be available primarily to knowledge workers, people who tend to be more educated and highly paid. They will likely further exacerbate existing economic and other divides, as those who work in lower-paid industries like retail, food service, and warehousing must also contend with the consequences of the pandemic. Some believe, though, that any transformation of the workforce could have positive results.

For employers of knowledge workers, the idea of letting them work from anywhere could means less upward pressure on salaries and access to a wider talent pool.

“People are using this to say how can we expand our reach and get the best worker for the best price,” Mondo’s Barker said.

For employees, increased flexibility means better work-life balance.

“I genuinely believe employees have so much more control now,” Barker said. “I believe that this will rip the Band-Aid between two worlds: Old-school suit and tie and the freelance generation.”

That can be good news for workers in general.

“Work is generally inhumane and should be a lot better for more people,” Henry Albrecht, CEO of the employee experience software company Limeade, told Recode. He considers the coronavirus pandemic a “black swan event,” one that is “bad but will lead to innovation.”

“Work will come out in a much stronger place for human beings.”


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