Following the completion of our unique Home Working Study, our team have gathered some invaluable insights that can help organisations make better informed decisions relating to future workplace strategy.
Over the past eight weeks of monitoring we have collected data from 12 different organisations spanning a range of industries, providing a rich data set including; 4473 days of wellbeing data, 2050 performance data points and over 390 surveys. We’ll be posting these insights on our website within the coming weeks to provide some detailed analysis of the data and expert analysis. Before we release this report, I wanted to take the chance to discuss some of the unique insights and what they might mean for the future of work. As organisations transition back to a “new business as usual”, many are looking to keep large volumes of employees working from home for an extended period, whilst they consider what blend of workplaces their employees will need in the longer-term.
The aim of our Home Working Study was to provide the wider business community with data-driven insights that help them understand the most important factors to consider when asking employees to work from home for long periods. This didn’t mean they should simply take our findings and base decisions on their employees on our cross-industry data. The idea was to raise awareness of the main pro’s and con’s during this “unnatural” period of home working and to encourage more organisations to continuously track and monitor employees, thus creating a true picture of what was happening with their teams, and enabling them to develop fit for purpose strategies. As such, this article discusses four key areas related to our Home Working Study data, to try and identify the insights of most value for employers moving forward; 1) Which data is of value?, 2) Changes over time, 3) Differences across cohorts, 4) Differences across workplaces.
1. Which Data is of Value?
Following the processing and analysis of thousands of data points, we have a range of insights related to home working. This got me thinking in regard to which findings actually have the opportunity to provide organisations with real value relating to longer-term home working strategies and which may not offer that much insight because they were either fairly predictable from the outset or are likely to have been skewed by the COVID-19 restrictions themselves.
In regard to our data, from a negative perspective, over a quarter of employees (26%) reported feeling isolated and 24% found that being able to collaborate with their team was challenging, whilst working at home. Additionally, physical wellbeing was negatively impacted during the home working period, with employees taking 2235 less daily steps than the industry average (Pre-COVID-19 = 10,710) and a significant increase in sedentary time (52min). On a positive note, employees reported a slight increase in nightly sleep duration (7min) when working from home. Additionally, 21% of employees reported that they enjoyed the flexibility that working from home afforded them and 25% reported not having to commute to the office as a big benefit of home working.
Whilst these findings are interesting and help to paint a general picture of what working from home was like during lockdown, it may be argued that much of this could have been predicted prior to entering lockdown and, perhaps more importantly, the impact was likely heightened from being in lockdown and the severe restrictions on movement and social contact.
This begs the question “How can organisations use this data to inform future decision making around home working?” The truth is, they had probably already identified some of the key issues within a few days of the home working period starting and had taken steps to help resolve or support them. Collaborating with colleagues and feeling isolated were always going to be issues that were reported by employees. As a result, many organisations actively sought to improve their remote communication methods to better support their employees, some more successfully than others. Realistically, there was a limit to what they could achieve with the restrictions in place and if home working is to be a more permanent fixture in the future, there will be opportunities to ensure that employees that need to collaborate can do so face to face through appropriate workspace design.
Equally, an improvement in sleep and the benefit of reduced commutes, were again to be expected once lockdown hit. Employees didn’t have to rush out the door for the school run or to catch a train, and removing a long commute from a working day will always be seen as a benefit when those hours can be put to better use. With restrictions lifted and a return to more normality (for example as the school drop-off recommences), it is fair to predict that sleep patterns will start to return to Pre-COVID-19 levels. That’s not too say employers shouldn’t try to actively support employees sleep behaviour due to the potential knock-on effects it can cause (see below), but is merely to point out that this is another trend that was always likely to be effected by COVID-19 restrictions and ultimately sheds little light on the true, longer-term impact of home working.
In my eyes, of more relevance to help develop longer-term strategies, are findings that can be linked to other variables to show trends that may be more long lasting and not subject to the effect of lockdown measures. Based on the data we collected, this includes findings such as;
Ø Restorative sleep improving by 3.1% (5min) per night leading to short-term memory improving by 4%
Ø Working in a slightly warm environment at home enhanced short-term memory by 10.6%
Ø Employees were able to perform 3% better on decision-making tasks in the afternoon compared to the morning.
These type of findings highlight how much one particular variable impacts another and provide greater insight into why home working should be approached on an individualised basis moving forward in order to fully support employees wellbeing and performance. Personalising the home working space to ensure the right indoor environmental features are available, developing ways of working that support better quality sleep and building flexible scheduling to allow employees to focus on the right type of tasks at the right time of day, are all tangible actions that employers can take to improve the home working experience moving forward. Identifying these type of insights for your employees and then actively working with them to enhance and support, will help ensure longer term home working is effective for your business. Only collecting data to reinforce what you already know will limit how prepared you and your business are to support home working over time.
2. Changes over Time
I’ve read many reports over the past month providing commentary on the impact the home working period has had on employees and what this means for offices and ways of working in the future. These reports were based on workplace surveys which provided employees with the opportunity to express their feelings towards working from home at a certain point in time. In many cases the insights reported were based on a solitary survey, and at best, on three surveys across the period. Subjective surveys are an effective way to gather employee sentiment, and a tool that we often use in conjunction with other quantitative data collection methods. My concern around reports based only on subjective data is that they are simply a snapshot of a moment in time of employees’ emotions, which will have been heavily influenced by how they were feeling at that time. Given the strict restrictions in place, the stress caused by the pandemic and the general uncertainty at the time it is unlikely that the responses given during the first two weeks of lockdown would be exactly the same as those given one month later or indeed if employees were asked the same questions today. As macro-level external factors changed, such as a lifting of lockdown restrictions or being furloughed, so would employee sentiment or behaviour and these subtle changes are often not picked up through isolated one-time surveys alone.
Our data highlights this trend when we look at variables such as physical activity as shown in Figure 1 below. Throughout the home working period there were peaks and troughs in relation to daily steps and the amount of exercise minutes across the cohort of employees. As you would expect, as soon as lockdown was enforced during the week of 23rd March, daily steps and exercise minutes decreased (19.5% and 6.3% respectively) compared to early March. However, this pattern of behaviour did not remain constant throughout the home working period. Exercise minutes reached their largest daily slump in mid-May with a 12.5% decrease compared to early March. However, between that slump and the initial decrease, they actually reached levels in May that were similar to those seen in February pre-Covid. Furthermore, despite them dropping again as lockdown continued, the easing of restrictions saw them gradually increase again to normal levels.
Conversely, daily steps have not recovered from their initial slump, despite restrictions easing. Although they again saw an increase after a few weeks in lockdown (possibly as a result of employees’ getting into some kind of home working routine), they then decreased again, reaching a decrease of 30.8% at their lowest compared to early March. Since restrictions have been lifted, they have risen, but have not returned to anywhere near pre-COVID-19 levels. This highlights how employees are still not moving enough throughout the working day when working at home, which could lead to wellbeing issues if it continues in the long-term. Variables fluctuate across time periods due to many factors and whilst employees are out of sight working from home, employers need to understand what changes are occurring in order to offer the right type and level of support.
Figure 1. The fluctuations of daily steps and exercise minutes across the period of pre, during and easing of lockdown [data collected via wearables]
With all that in mind, I would suggest to organisations that the next 3 to 6 months will be critical periods for your employees, particularly with many being located at home for that entire period, and basing your strategy on data from the first two months of home working may be at best mildly ineffective and at worst misleading. Ongoing measurement throughout this period will be critical, as frequently and objectively as possible. This could, and should, include subjective surveys to hear the voice of your employee, but these must be supported by objective data in order to provide a more holistic picture of your workforce. As employees’ behaviours change, so will their needs, and organisations who are actively monitoring will be best placed to react to these changes to provide the appropriate support and advice.
3. Differences across cohorts
Our data shows that employee responses to this situation have been very individualised, so looking at only company-wide data may lead to important trends and correlations being missed and a one-sized fits all approach being adopted. Additionally, I hear a lot of organisations quoting findings or insights from reports based on data from other companies and using this information to base decisions around their own employees. Similarly to understanding individual nuances within company wide data, collecting insights on your own workforce is vitally important in order to develop effective long-term strategies. Our data highlights this quite clearly.
If we look at one particular company and their cognitive performance data whilst working from home, we can see that on average the employee scores on decision-making tasks improved by 9.3% compared to when working in an office environment. This is potentially a very insightful finding which highlights how home working has had a positive impact on employees’ ability to perform at their best compared to their old office environment. However, when we split the data into three teams from this organisation, we see some variations in performance. One team showed improvements in decision making of 12.4%, another of 10.7%, whilst the third team found that home working improved their performance by just 4.9%. Whilst all three teams improved there was a 7.5% difference between two of the teams. When you dig deeper and consider individual employee level data for one of these teams as per Figure 2 (below), the variations increase further still, with three employees showing a significant improvement of 13% or above, four employees improving between 6% and 9%, and a further three members of the team either performing worse or improving below 4%, when working at home. Such team and individual employee level insights are crucial if organisations are to make informed decisions around which groups of employees can flourish whilst working from home and which may require an earlier return to the office. Using company wide data, will not provide that type of insight and could be misleading, ultimately causing long-term issues for employees and the wider business.
Figure 2. Individual changes in decision making performance (Home working vs Office) [data collected via wearables]
When considering inter-organisation differences, to emphasise the importance of measuring your own employees, the data once again makes interesting reading. If we take a range of metrics we can report on average; sleep quality improved by 3.1%, exercise minutes decreased by 5.5%, performance on decision-making and memory tasks increased by 4%, daily steps decreased by 20.9% and stress levels decreased by 8% across 12 companies when employees worked from home compared to an office environment. Looking at this data and applying it to your own employees, you might deduce that working from home has some negative impact from a wellbeing perspective, but also some positives, with certain variables demonstrating good levels of improvement. This might result in an organisation taking the wrong type of action or worse still, none at all, to properly support their own employees because of this industry wide data. This could have serious implications on the future wellbeing of the workforce because the average data from across all companies combined can paint a different picture when compared to breaking the analysis down to individual company level. Once our team did this with the home working data, it was clear to see stark differences between companies. As an example, we found differences in sleep quality per night of 22.1% (33min), daily exercise minutes of 48.1% (26min), performance on decision making and short term memory tasks of 8.5% and 9.8% respectively, and daily steps of 79.1% (4,094 steps) between different company datasets. Similar differences were found throughout the dataset across the range of variables. This highlights that basing decisions around wellbeing, real estate or ways working on industry averages is likely to lead to long-term difficulties because the unique nature of your own employees and teams must be considered if a fit for purpose approach is to be created.
4. Differences across workspaces
The advent of home working certainly led many organisations to try and understand how this enforced change would impact their employees. They recognised how such a quick and abnormal change to their employees’ daily workspaces would potentially have serious wellbeing and productivity implications and as such they had to react in an attempt to mitigate risk. This reaction was very welcome, even if in many cases it did not provide any actionable data (as previously discussed) – all too often organisations don’t interact appropriately with their employees to understand their needs and expectations, and as a result are unable to build a truly effective blend of workspaces that help their workforce flourish. Often an annual company-wide staff survey is the only opportunity employees get to voice their feelings towards the company they work for, the environment in which they work and the ways of working they have to follow. Even then, how much actual action is taken based on the results of this employee sentiment varies from company to company.
This home working period has reinforced what we already knew to be true. Workspaces impact the wellbeing & performance of employees in different ways. Being able to understand what variables have the greatest impact allows organisations to develop a blend of workspaces that actually meet the needs of the different personas present within their company and allows the business to grow. Our data from multiple workspaces, including large multinational HQ’s, SMART office locations, co-working spaces and now, home working, clearly shows how such spaces need to be designed with the employee in mind and emphasises the importance of measuring staff in these different environments.
If we take cognitive performance for example, we have seen vast differences across different workspaces. A SMART office, saw an improvement of 32% in decision-making tasks compared to a global HQ space, whilst home working improved performance on memory tasks by 14% against the same HQ. Similarly with wellbeing, resting heart rate was 6% lower when employees worked in a SMART office compared to when working at home, whilst a regular office environment led to 9% greater stress levels than in a home working environment. These insights are an example of some of the key differences that employees experience when working across multiple workspaces. They highlight the importance of monitoring your employees in every work location to ensure the blend on offer is suitable for the different teams and persona’s that make up your workforce. The last few months have shown how organisations can be agile and flexible to respond to unforeseen situations in order to support their employees as best as possible. Organisations who truly want to help their employees feel and perform better in the long-term, now need to take a more strategic approach to understand how they can gather effective insights continuously across a range of employee workspaces. If they can get that right, the benefits it will provide for their employees and then ultimately the wider business could be unlimited.
This period of enforced home working has been an interesting live experiment, that few organisations would have conducted if their hands hadn’t been forced by the global situation. The insights that have been generated have led to more questions than answers for many organisations and the next few months will likely prove to be pivotal to the long-term success of many businesses. Employees have been given the trust, flexibility and agility that they have often craved, and for some this has led to positive results from a wellbeing and performance perspective. However, for others, the transition has not been as smooth, meaning many employees are facing a difficult extended working from home period in the coming months. Employers now have a unique opportunity to future proof the health of their workforce whilst mitigating against the risk of developing an ineffective long-term strategy. Now is the time to start the process of monitoring your employees, whilst senior leadership are developing revised strategies, not in six-month’s time once decisions have been made and the policies developed. Gathering good quality, meaningful data, on your employees now, will provide you with the evidence to support those processes and minimise the chance of taking the wrong path, which could not only have a potentially damaging effect on the business, but more importantly, might negatively impact the health of your employees.
Dr Paul Smith
Chief Strategy Officer, ART Health Solutions