I published an article three weeks ago entitled “Measuring the impact of Home Working” which created a lot of discussion within the LinkedIn community. More specifically, the article considered how this difficult situation may lead to a change in strategy amongst organisations to better support the needs of their employees in the future. In this respect, many real estate and HR teams across the globe are grappling with:
1. How to ensure the wellbeing of their staff whilst they work at home in these challenging circumstances
2. How best to prepare for the potential impact of the COVID restrictions, both from a financial and human perspective, when they eventually return to business as usual
3. Making longer term contingency plans so they are better placed to deal with future crisis situations and can develop a fit for purpose real estate strategy
As discussed during my previous article, at ART we have been able to respond to the needs of our own clients to help them gather insights that will allow them to make evidence based decisions related to the three challenges above. This involves ongoing measurement of employee wellbeing, performance and sentiment during the home working period, providing real time data to support the short term needs of employees and the medium to longer term plans of the organisation.
Alongside our work with clients, we have also set up a “Home Working” study for any individual or organisation interested in assessing the impact on employee wellbeing and performance. We now have many organisations and participants who are taking advantage of this FREE to participate in project and we will be sharing our findings as we collect and analyse the data over the coming weeks. As part of this study we have been measuring our own team since we began working from home on 13th March 2020 and I wanted to share some of the initial findings from the first three weeks of home working in this article.
The Impact on Wellbeing
We have collected a range of metrics from our team over the past month relating to wellbeing, performance and employee experience. In this article I wanted to focus on the impact this period has had on the wellbeing of our team since we have moved from our normal London based office (within a co-working space), to being based in our own homes. From a wellbeing perspective, we have collected data 24 hours a day during the working week via Smart Watches and have measured daily steps, resting heart rate, heart rate variability, activity levels, daily calories, sleep duration, sleep stages and collected mental wellbeing insights via pulse surveys. This has provided us with a large number of datapoints, which we have aggregated into “Total Group Data” to understand the effect on the team as a whole.
From a sleep perspective, our team have seen some consistent improvements since beginning the period of home working on 13th March. Sleep duration has increased by 30min per night on average, meaning the team have moved into the recommended range of seven to nine hours sleep per night. This increase is very much in-line with data that Fitbit released last week, that showed how sleep habits have changed since this enforced home working period began across different parts of the globe (read more here). Given that individuals are currently not having to allow time in their schedules for their daily commute, to drop kids to school or to fit in a visit to the gym, this improvement in sleep duration may not be that surprising.
Perhaps more interestingly the restorative sleep (deep sleep and REM sleep combined) that our team have experienced has also increased by 18% during the working from home period. This essentially means the team are getting better quality sleep and helping their bodies and minds to recover from the previous day’s activities. This could have a positive impact on their ability to work throughout the day and significantly contribute to overall health & wellbeing. In regards to this summation, I’ll provide further insights in future articles that will look at the performance of the team whilst working from home, and discuss how sleep may be contributing to any trends we find in those areas.
It’s important to also consider that these improvements in sleep duration and restorative sleep have occurred every week since we began to measure the team, meaning the data was not skewed by a large improvement in week 1 and then followed by a return to normal levels in weeks 2 and 3. It should also be noted that the amount, type and intensity of work the team have had to undertake during this period has remained at similar levels to that of normal operation, so a reduced workload cannot be attributed to the changes in sleep duration or quality.
Looking at some physical wellbeing metrics, the average resting heart rate (RHR) of the team decreased by 6% (3 beats per min [bpm]) during the first three weeks of home working. This is quite a significant change in a short period of time and whilst RHR varies from one individual to another, experts suggest a lower RHR typically implies more efficient heart function and better cardiovascular fitness. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of this lowering of RHR although research has shown that a change in sleeping and eating habits can impact RHR and as such may provide as potential factors that are causing these positive changes across the team. I’ll discuss the impact this period has had on the teams eating and hydration habits in future articles to provide some insights around this area.
Furthermore, as expected with the current restrictions on movement outside of the home, average steps decreased by over 2000 per day for the team (a reduction of 15%), compared to when working in our regular office environment. Clearly prolonged reduced activity levels could have implications for the long term health & wellbeing of the team, so it is encouraging to see that despite the reduced steps, the number of exercise sessions undertaken has remained constant along with the duration of activity. This means the team have been able to maintain the frequency and length of exercise sessions during this period compared to normal workout practices, which goes someway to balancing out the reduced number of steps and long term impact on physical wellbeing.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic social distancing restrictions on mental wellbeing has been discussed at length. Being isolated from friends and families, living through uncertain job/financial situations, dealing with the stress of the pandemic and risk of getting ill, are just some of the stressors that could lead to serious mental health issues in the short and long term. Organisations across the globe have developed various strategies in an attempt to mitigate the effect of this situation on their employees and to support them through this difficult period. Unfortunately, for many employers, they have no way of accurately measuring the true effect on their employees mental wellbeing and are therefore somewhat in the dark in regard to developing the best possible mental health support strategies that will have maximum impact.
Whilst our team have not had the stress of being furloughed or losing their jobs, they are exposed to many of the other stressors that this pandemic has raised, so understanding their current mental wellbeing has been a priority for us as a business. As the above graphic shows, one objective metric we have been collecting in this regard is each team members heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the variation in the time interval between consecutive heartbeats and is effected by many factors including stress, as it is regulated by the bodies autonomic nervous system (read more here). Surprisingly the data from our team shows that this particular metric has improved by 13% on average during the start of home working. Factors potentially influencing this include; home isolation increasing feelings of security, removal of outside stressors reducing anxiety, and more time spent with family improving feelings of happiness. Additionally, the increases in restorative sleep mentioned earlier will also likely have been a factor in these HRV improvements. When considering our employees subjective feelings, the data supports the objective findings that stress and worry are currently at manageable levels for our team, with their responses being similar to those of other datasets we have collected from organisations with employees based in regular office environments. These findings in no way suggest that stress and mental wellbeing should not be a big concern during this isolation period, but do highlight the importance of measuring and monitoring staff to really understand the true picture in order to provide the appropriate support.
How does this data help?
It is important to make clear that it is still very early days in regard to the measurement period and as such our findings may well change the longer we spend working from home. Soon we will also be able to add a large amount of additional data from a number of organisations and employees who are benefitting from taking part in this study. This larger dataset will likely provide alternative insights that are perhaps specific to particular organisations, worker types and personas, highlighting the need to really understand your own employee data. Organisations and employees will be facing different situations than our own team here at ART that are likely being challenged by different distractions and stressors.
However, in summarising the initial impact on our employees’ wellbeing over the first three weeks of working from home:
1. There is an opportunity to get more and better-quality sleep that can have multiple benefits in regard to the body’s ability to recover, both physically and mentally. Our team have shown that this is possible even for those still working their regular hours and with young children in the house. Not only can this help them feel better and prepare the team for a day juggling working/home commitments, but research has also shown how improved sleep can boost our immune system, reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease and improve cognitive function. Our data shows home working is supporting, rather than hindering, this effect for our own employees.
2. Whilst this period makes it difficult to maintain daily exercise routines or ensure that we continue to move regularly, our data shows it is possible to undertake a level of activity that meets World Health Organisation guidelines in order to maintain health & wellbeing. The importance of completing frequent activity, over a sufficient duration and at an appropriate intensity can have huge benefits for employee physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing and overall ability to cope with the current crisis. Our findings to date suggest working from home is having a negligible impact on our team’s physical wellbeing.
3. Employees mental wellbeing needs serious consideration during this period. The opportunity for employees to become isolated and disconnected is significant, which can lead to an increase in worry, stress and anxiety. Thankfully our data is showing that our team are not currently experiencing this negative impact and are actually showing some signs of reduced stress levels and improved happiness since working from home. It is difficult to pinpoint the reason why this has occurred, but if this trend continues, we expect to see some positive impact on our employees overall wellbeing and performance during this home working period. I’ll post future articles providing some of the key findings from a performance perspective and how these may link back to stress levels and mental wellbeing.
As I have previously mentioned, it is still early days and these findings may change as we face a longer period of isolation and restrictions. However, it is clear that the early data coming from our employees is that the first three weeks of working from home have had a positive impact on their overall wellbeing. This not only gives us comfort that they have reacted positively as a group but it also strongly emphasises why continually engaging with staff and measuring the true impact of COVID restrictions will allow organisations to provide fit for purpose responses and strategies.
Keep an eye out for my next article that will discuss more findings from our “Home Working” study and specifically focus on the impact this period is having on employee cognitive performance and feelings of productivity.
Dr. Paul Smith
Chief Strategy Officer, ART Health Solutions