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Massive work experiment

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An unexpected side-effect of the Wuhan Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak is a massive work experiment.  Millions upon millions of Chinese knowledge workers are going to be working from home for many weeks. What is this going to do to performance?


In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer decreed that Yahoo workers would no longer be allowed to work from home. The reason? She wrote that:
Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.

While that is certainly true, there was a darker, distrustful side to her missive. She checked the server logs to see if employees working from home were logged into the system. Looking at the numbers, she concluded that employees were slacking off.  In Deep Work, author Cal Newport argues that Mayer was essentially “punishing her employees for not spending more time checking email (one of the primary reasons to log in to the servers).”


He argues that most organizations fail to understand the difference between connection and connectivity.  Connectivity occurs when an employee is logged onto the system. Connection happens when they are formally or informally collaborating.

For Mayer, the connectivity equated to work. However, permanent online connectivity comes with a wide range of digital distractions – email, messaging services, slack notifications, and multi-tabbed internet browsers which might or might not be work-related.  When online in the workplace, employees are also managing impressions. By staying at their desks firing off emails it appears as if they are being productive, regardless of what they might actually be doing.

The never-ending distractions and interruptions of the digitally-connected workplace have numerous performance-killing side-effects. Many of us now switch tasks roughly every three minutes during the working day, meaning we never get to fully focus our attention on our core tasks. 

To cope, we expand our hours, coming in earlier and leaving later.  We then either wear our increased hours as a badge of pride, affirming our identity as a hard-worker or we try to work faster and faster in order to fit the work that needs to be done into the small windows we have available.

The longer-hours coping technique has clear side-effects.  With less time spent with loved ones and little time to rest and recuperate, we become irritable at home and at work and our cognitive function drops. Unfortunately, the working-faster coping technique is more harmful physiologically and psychologically across almost every marker. It leads to attention deficit disorders, hyper-tension, burn-out or worse.

Deep Work

In an environment in which coming back to work is not an option, this forced work-from-home experiment should not suffer from Mayer-like digital scrutiny.  It is very possible that working-from-home employees will become more productive and do more deep, focused work than they ever were able to at the office.

Distraction-free attention can be applied to the work that needs to be done, leading to carefully-crafted reports, aesthetically-designed presentations, and a plethora of other good outcomes instead of the work that is often done sloppily in the micro-moments between distractions in the workplace.

Employees might also manage to spend more time with their loved ones, have more sleep, and generally become less irritable and anxious (aside from worries about the virus, of course).

Collaborative Work

One thing that will be impacted by enforced working-from-home is good collaboration. While digital tools enable virtual collaboration, there is a formality and complexity to their use that might prevent excellent collaborative practice and deep human-to-human connection from occurring. 

Analogue collaborative practice has two forms – formal and informal.

Formal practice involves meeting with colleagues to solve a complex problem. It should largely be agenda free, and should last as long as is necessary to find a solution and assign the tasks to be done.    Participants should have a full understanding of their role in the next stage of the process, which will often require individual deep work on various components. Notably, Google has discovered that the teams that spend the most time in analogue collaboration are far more productive and rapid when it comes to coding the solution.

Informal collaborative practice takes place in liminal spaces – coffee shops, bars, cafes, restaurants – in which work and social life combine. When co-workers break bread together, the fluid work-and-life-related conversations that follow are replete with insights and possibilities that almost never get discussed in formal environments. For the attentive listener, all kinds of possible solutions will emerge from such conversations. Alex Pentland’s research on collaboration has suggested that regularly breaking bread together can improve team performance by up to 50%.  This is the reason why so much of Google’s floorspace is set aside for eating and drinking.

There is little doubt that good collaborative practice is going to be negatively impacted during China’s enforced work-from-home policy. This will likely result in a short-term drop in creative and innovative problem-solving in affected companies.

What we can learn is the degree to which being free of the distractions of workplace connectivity has on more productivity – the amount done and the quality of the work. If employees do begin to produce good work at an increased rate, plus find more time for relationships, rest and recuperation, then we will have learned something significant.

Customized Deep and Collaborative Spaces – The Future of Work?

Unfortunately, for perfectly understandable reasons, I don’t think that many companies will measure the outcome of this unexpected experiment in a meaningful manner. However, it certainly should give us an opportunity to reflect on how an organization could maximize both deep and collaborative work practices, and ensure employee wellbeing and cognitive performance in the process.

One such outcome might be a vigorous reappraisal of space usage. What if we discover that people’s best Deep Work is done in a personally-customized work environment away from the office, whether at home, the beach or at a coffee shop? How might we reorganize our workplace practices if this were the case?

It’s not so far-fetched. The Results-Only Work Environment methodology is already doing this with great success.

If we don’t need office space to do good deep work, what might we need it for?  One significant aspect of work is a sense of belongingness.  Organizational cultures were supposed to help us feel like we belonged as we shared values with those around us. What happens if hyper-flexible work-from-anywhere policies become the norm. Will our sense of belongingness disappear too?

Alongside belongingness, collaborative practice must be supported given how positively it impacts performance. There is going to be a need for places designed to support excellence in formal and informal collaboration.

There’s certainly a case to be made for coworking providing community-as-a-service and collaboration-as-a-service. Community-collaboration membership could bring people deep working from home together in a custom-designed and facilitated community-collaboration space when they need to work on complex problems and a sense of belongingness.

Text by roundPegz fellow: Richard Claydon
Illustration by roundPegz fellow: Jonathan Hood

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