Until 12 months ago, just 3% of full-time workers in the U.S. said they “primarily” worked out of a home office, according to a Census Bureau survey. Overall, corporate life wasn’t much different than it was 15 years ago. If we look around now, however, the situation has changed dramatically.
Tens of millions work from home, children interrupting remote meetings have become the norm, as well as seeing our colleagues with unlikely virtual backgrounds like tropical beaches or outer space landscapes. Travelling is a distant memory for most of us and we are all trying to figure out how to adapt to this new reality.
There is a lot of ongoing research trying to assess the impact of all these changes on the workforce. Early results from the London School of Economics has found some positive signs. Their research highlighted that employees working remotely focus more on difference-making activities as they spend 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers. On top of that, some companies gauged a rise in productivity for specific parts of their workforce. “We’ve seen, anecdotally, some increases in productivity for some of our developers as they’re hunkered and focused at home,” said Bank of New York Mellon Corp Chief Financial Officer, Mike Santomassimo. A similar productivity bump was identified by an internal case study at Publicis Sapient, an IT consulting company, that tracked work by 410 employees on roughly 40 tech-focused projects for a large New York-based investment bank. Between March 16 and April 10, tasks were completed at either the same rate or faster than those before the COVID crisis. However, a study that quantitatively measures the overall effects on productivity across industries and job roles has not yet been made available.
Working from home can indeed have some potential benefits. A famous experiment designed by Stanford’s economist Nicolas Bloom on more than 1000 employees at Ctrip, a Chinese travel company, revealed that working from home during a nine-month period led to a 13 percent increase in performance — almost an extra day of output per week — plus a 50 percent drop in employee-quit rates. Bloom himself, however, identified serious issues with the current situation.
The workers in the experiment had a dedicated home office space, and nobody was allowed to enter the space during the workday, except for the employee. “Many people I have been interviewing are now working in their bedrooms or shared common rooms, with noise from their partners, family or flatmates”, Bloom says, creating far less ideal conditions for productivity.
An additional area of concern is Innovation. Bloom’s research has shown that face-to-face meetings are essential for developing new ideas and keeping staff motivated and focused. “I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation”, he says. “The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in the future, lowering long-run growth.” Moreover, the element of personal choice is a key factor contributing to the success of Ctrip’s work-from-home policy. Something that is absent in the current situation. Of the 1,000 Ctrip employees offered the choice to work from home, only 500 volunteered. The others wanted to remain in the office. After nine months of allowing those employees to do their jobs at home, Ctrip asked the original volunteers whether they wanted to keep working remotely or return to the office. Half of them requested to return to the office, despite their average commute being 40 minutes each way. Why was that? “The answer is social company”, Bloom says. “They reported feeling isolated, lonely and depressed at home. So, I fear an extended period of working from home will not only kill office productivity but is building a mental health crisis.” In fact, as lockdowns progressed, so did a widespread perception that more remote working and social isolation, coupled with increasing global competition and tougher macro-economic conditions, might generate an increase in mental health issues, like burnout, overstress, anxiety and mental exhaustion.
By early April, about 45% of workers said they were burned out, according to a survey of 1,001 U.S. employees by Eagle Hill Consulting. Almost half attributed the mental toll to an increased workload, the challenge of juggling personal and professional life, and a lack of communication and support from their employer. In fact, two-thirds of human resources professionals surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management earlier this year admit that maintaining employee morale has proven difficult.
The global pandemic has lit the fire under the already explosive situation of workplace mental health. According to a global study by Workplace Intelligence and Oracle which surveyed more than 12,000 workers at all levels across 11 countries, over three-fourths of workers say that this is the most stressful year ever. Over three-fourths of respondents believe their company should be doing more to support their mental health. Nearly half of respondents from the study said that workplace stress, anxiety or depression causes their productivity to plummet, and 40% said it leads to an increase in poor decision-making at work. Not to mention, it has a profound impact on their personal lives as well, carrying negative effects from work to home.
Despite the different short-term changes, the transition to a more remote workforce appears to be certain. As do the effects of this new normality on employees’ mental health. Some employees have gone as far as saying they feel like they went from working from home to living at work.
The deterioration of employees’ mental wellbeing is building up rapidly. However, this is not news either. In 2019, the WHO had already estimated the impact of burnout on the global economy to be $323 billion and forecasted a burnout global pandemic within the decade. 50% of millennials and 75% of GenZers had already left a job for mental-health reasons and mental health is rapidly becoming the next frontier of diversity and inclusion.
None of these trends has been generated by the pandemic, although they have certainly been exacerbated by it. The idea of going back to some sort of idyllic “normal life” is as unfounded and naive as it was riding a horse to work after the mass automobile revolution spread across society in the early twenties.
Unfortunately, there is no way “back”. In a Qualtrix XM study on over 17000 participants in May, 79% of all respondents felt “at or beyond workload capacity”. Employees identified being stuck at home, loneliness/social isolation, fears about job security, and childcare and home-schooling requirements as the top contributors to their personal stress and anxiety. Looking forward, most of these elements are here to stay.
Most companies are aware a lot of work needs to be done in this area. However, there is a huge readiness gap. Despite 80% of organizations saying worker well-being is important or very important for their success, only 12% say they are very ready to address this issue, according to the 2020 Deloitte Human Capital Trends survey.
With more blurred boundaries between personal and professional life, trying to apply traditional productivity models to this new normality seems to be a recipe for disaster. Personal behaviours and tendencies once appreciated and indicated as models to be followed, like rolling up your sleeves and working long hours, could create space for even further exhaustion, resentment, and burnout.
Top performers could be even more at risk. A 2018 study from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found that 1 out of 5 high engaged employees reported signs of burnout. In particular, individuals with high-controlling tendencies, a common trait among leaders, might struggle to endure the new conditions.
Some employers are attempting to help people cope. Goldman Sachs gave staff an extra 10 days of family leave; Microsoft is offering workers an additional 12 weeks of parental leave. Starbucks employees now get 20 free therapy sessions. Salesforce is running virtual meditation and workouts. Some are also trying to offer Artificial Intelligence 24h support like Ginger or BioBeats.
However, these measures could end up being like a small patch on a serious fracture. Research shows how additional leave days alone do not significantly address serious issues like anxiety and burnout as they do not address the root cause.
If we are to address these issues, we need a new productivity paradigm that allows us to increase business results alongside employees’ wellbeing and engagement. We need a new productivity triple bottom line.
Among the solutions being developed and tested in this period by several organizations and academic institutions, at High-Performance Leadership, we designed an innovative approach focused on Individual Energy. We named it iNERGY. In the traditional approach to productivity, results are maximized by both improving employees’ skills and increasing the time they dedicate to their work. However, at any specific moment in time, workforce skills are fixed and can only change significantly over the long term. A timeline that most companies nowadays are not particularly focused on. That is why working long hours has been highly appreciated and encouraged for decades.
Unfortunately, time is limited in nature. So, when employees are asked to work longer, they take it from their family, friends, and passions. This generates resentment, frustration and in the worst case, burnout. Energy, on the contrary, can be expanded and continuously regenerated. The iNERGY framework helps leaders to restore their energy by focusing on the 5 main sources of individual energy: Body, Mind, Heart, Core, and Relationships. It does so by applying the key existing scientific research on individual performance to simple, practical tools. Participants mention these tools help them sustainably perform at their best, feel better and enjoy more of work and life in general.
The approach is intentionally easy to implement, as it is aimed at creating energizing daily habits in the schedule of busy executives. For example, through the Body pillar, iNERGY helps leaders and their teams to understand how nutrition, exercise, breathing and sleep impact their level of energy. Exploring a few powerful tools like mindful eating, intermittent fasting, circadian and ultradian rhythms, participants are supported in identifying the one or two that can have the highest impact on their personal energy. After each session, they have 3 weeks to experiment with these tools in their lives so that they can feel an immediate energy boost and create powerful energizing habits that will help them keep their batteries charged over time. One of our participants, a Senior Management Consultant from Spain, after the first session told me, “I have been experimenting with a few of the tools we discussed, but the one that had the highest impact on me has been the awareness of my Circadian Rhythm. It helped me to take simple steps and change my pre-bed routine. Now I have more time for reading during the evening, I sleep like a child and wake up refreshed”. As 30% of the adult population in the US suffers from insomnia, simple habits like this can dramatically impact the energy each of us brings to the workplace. Another participant, a Sales Director of a large Corporation in Singapore, after attending our first session told me, “I have never really liked having breakfast. Now I am experimenting with Intermittent Fasting, I have much more time for exercising in the morning, I feel better and I arrive at work fully charged”
The results of the first groups have been extremely encouraging. Attendees coming from 3 different continents have reported an increase of 50% in engagement, 40% in productivity and 80% in wellbeing.
As we move toward rolling out the project worldwide, we envision a new, more empowered approach to corporate life in which employees enjoy the perks of working remote, while being given the tools to regenerate their energy and sustainably perform at their best. A new model of corporate life where thriving employees are not seen as a luxury, but as the key propeller of sustainable corporate performance. This is the new frontier of Diversity and Inclusion, where companies not only focus on making employees feel welcome and accepted but also truly cared for. There has never been a better moment for such a change.