Creatures of Habit
The lockdown has caused both good and bad changes of routine
Habits can be slow to form. But when they do, they can become entrenched. When workers headed home during the first lockdown of March 2020, they probably thought the break would last for a month or so. Had that been true, old routines would soon have resumed.
It is now ten months since many employees have made a regular commute into the office. New routines have taken root and those will be much harder to break. Some of these new habits are bad, and they may stem as much from managers as from workers.
Asana, a maker of office software, commissioned a survey of more than 13,000 knowledge workers (defined as those who mostly work at a computer) across eight countries. It found that, on average in 2020, employees were working 455 hours a year more than their contracted requirement, or around two hours a day. That overtime had almost doubled relative to 2019. And much of the excess may not have been necessary; workers complained about the amount of time they spent in meetings and video-calls, or in responding to messages.
Perhaps this forced communication is the result of manager anxiety. Fearful that remote workers will be tempted to slack, they have monitored their teams like an anxious parent who has taken a toddler to a swimming pool.
Or managers may have felt the need to look busy, prompting them to call more meetings than before. They may have trapped themselves in a cycle of futile activity – corporate hamsters on a wheel. Many managers complain of “Zoom fatigue”, as they drag themselves from one video-call to another, often keeping other participants waiting as they try to wrap up the previous meeting.
This bad news has a silver lining. Get rid of the needless meetings and productivity should improve. Perhaps managers will make it their new year’s resolution to ask the question, “Is this meeting really necessary?” Bartleby’s Law is that 80% of the time of 80% of the attendees at meetings is wasted. The lockdowns have provided ample evidence to corroborate your columnist’s hypothesis.
Research suggests that executives may spend 23 hours a week in meetings. Cut that time in half and think of how much more might be achieved. And that will be just as true when people return to the office as it is when they work from their kitchen table. The pandemic could provide a wake-up call on meeting futility.
The best habit developed during the pandemic has been flexibility. The ritual of the daily commute and the standard working day has been abandoned. And with it, the curse of “presenteeism” – the idea that, unless you are constantly visible, you are not working. Self-isolating workers have shown they will happily get on with their work, even when not under the beady eye of their boss.
A survey of personnel chiefs by Gartner, a research firm, found that 65% planned to allow employees flexibility on their working arrangements, even after vaccines have been distributed. They predicted that around half the workforce would want to return to the office, for at least part of the time.
Permitting this flexibility makes perfect sense. When lockdowns end, many workers may relish the chance to escape from their homes and see their colleagues in the flesh. They will be even happier if they can arrive at 10am one day, and 8.30am the next, if that suits their domestic requirements. And if they decide to work at home on Fridays, they will no longer feel as guilty as they might have done before the pandemic. The office can be a refuge, not a prison.
Employers will also take advantage of the new flexibility. Silvina Moschini, who runs TransparentBusiness, a workforce-management company, says that firms will change the way they scale up their operations, relying far more on freelancers, contractors and vendors than on full-time employees.
Handling a combination of remote workers and freelancers will require managers to acquire new habits. Ms. Moschini says the key will be to develop “empathic leadership” that understands the varied working conditions of team members. This might involve sending small gifts; at the start of the lockdown, she sent slippers to her team so they could feel comfy (mentally as well as physically) working from home.
Contacting workers should not be a matter of a rigid schedule but rather akin to the sentiment that prompts children to check in with elderly parents every so often. Friendly, informal contacts are a new habit that managers must still hone.