By Simon Haighton-Williams CEO at Adaptavist
The COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted virtually all organisations into adopting remote working and dramatically accelerated the digital transformation process in businesses around the world. In many cases, this has meant that unprepared enterprises have been left scrambling to implement new technologies, processes and ways of working. Whilst some people were accustomed to occasionally working from home, scheduling calls around partners and home-schooling, many of the global workforce were simply unaware of the additional layer of ‘invisible work” this would create.
Such a shift in the fundamentals of working has had significant impact on businesses and their operational capacity. Impact that may be difficult to identify and quantify while some organisations are struggling to just keep the lights on in an effort to understand how this sudden move to a virtual work environment has affected us as employees, leaders and businesses, we commissioned the Digital Etiquette Study. The survey of 2800 knowledge workers around the world explored the experiences of a digital working world and how businesses can future-proof their workforces during a time of turmoil and disruption.
The key findings were that 82% of respondents felt they were equally or more productive working from home with the same percentage favouring to work from home at least part of the time in the future. Therefore, from purely a productivity and employee preference, many businesses will be operating with a hybrid workforce in a post-COVID future and the impact of a digital work environment becomes vitally important to the new normal and how businesses manage this workforce.
The Survey makes it clear that the biggest change for most people has been how they communicate. The transition to an online-only world has brought the unclear protocols of digital etiquette sharply into focus as the lack of clarity changes from a nuisance to a significant source of anxiety and inefficiency. 38% of surveyed respondents admitted to worrying at least once a day about how they communicate on digital platforms with 10% worrying about this all the time. This source of stress is only compounded by the ‘always on’ nature of online communication that 42% of respondents report is the single greatest source of frustration and stress in work related communication.
Communication challenges require businesses to engage in actively managing the ‘always on’ burnout and the difficulties that accompany the use of digital platforms. The study found that many businesses are turning to video conferencing as the primary communication channel to make up for the loss of face-to-face interactions in the office and replace traditional methods like email. However, the ‘always on’ nature of personal communication channels like WhatsApp, used to plug the gaps in business communication has abolished the traditional working day and led to increasingly blurred lines between personal and professional lives. The lack of separation of time has made switching off challenging for 25% of respondents with 11% attributing this to the feeling that colleagues expected them to keep working. Businesses therefore have been removing the temporal boundaries of ‘office hours’ allowing employees to work more flexibly and encouraging staff to automatically switch off notifications from digital tools like Slack to assist in personal time management.
Business management faces its biggest challenge in continuing to operate organisations efficiently while simultaneously ensuring employee wellbeing. One of the simplest ways to help this process is introducing clarity and transparency on prioritised tasks each day or week with collaborative working platforms to focus teams and track efficiency in a seamless digital office environment. Whilst not a quick fix, tools such as Jira or Trello, with appropriate training, may enable the next evolution of business management that moves businesses and managers away from the traditional association of time and perceived activity. Organisations looking to maintain flexibility and combat the dangers of ‘always on’ burnout should also consider transitioning to a more value-based approach to tracking work. This approach places greater emphasis on the value generated by the work rather than the time spent on it enabling a level of flexibility necessary for the future of a hybrid workforce.
Whether looking at remote work from a peak of inflated expectations or the trough of disillusionment, for most organisations the ‘new normal’ is still far from certain. This research shows that remote work is a viable and desirable option for most knowledge businesses and individuals. Yet, it also uncovers some potential pitfalls as we look to the long-term when it comes to employee wellbeing and motivation and critically also innovation. In order to make this effective long-term, we need to address the threats to motivation and innovation caused by the absence of boundaries and the social interactions of the office.