When are you “at work”?

After nearly a year and a half from the advent of the pandemic, I believe we must redefine what it means to be “at work.” While digital technologies like email and smartphones have always blurred the distinction between being at work and being out of the office, for many white-collar workers, the pandemic has eliminated any separation that might have remained. Unlike with prior digital work technologies, which were typically adopted first by the busiest executives (top-down), Covid-19 forced many office teams into working solely atop digital technologies all the time. For the average employee who were used to working in a standard physical location during “regular hours” — usually 9 AM–5 PM — the change has been abrupt and disorienting, necessitating new plans and expectations. Now as hybrid and remote working options are becoming mainstream, businesses need to incorporate positive and negative learnings from the pandemic year. The “new normal” in fact demands new norms for work itself.

Research is showing that one of the basic factors in determining these new work norms is the concept of “team overlap” i.e., the extent to which the work hours of different team members coincide. In the physical workplace, having regular work hours typically guarantees a high degree of overlap between one team member and the rest of the team. With remote and hybrid work, that level of overlap is not as common.

Recent research is also confirming a now-familiar truth: the digital workday never really ends. On average, individual team members are available for work for 8+ hours in the day — using the conservative measurement of “being available for work” as being on a work computer for 30+ minutes in the hour. On average, teams are on their PCs for 45 minutes each hour, for 6.1 hours of effort over the course of each 24-hour workday.

Interestingly research shows that the remote workday is divided into two distinct portions: an 8-hour window from 9–5 where team members generally work together and a 16-hour window where team members generally work apart. During the first window, team members on average overlap with 50–70% of their colleagues, and can generally be considered to be working together. During the longer “off hours” window, team members overlap with 10–50% of their colleagues, and can thus be considered to be working apart.

In the 9 AM–5 PM window when there’s the highest overlap, there are two peaks, one at 10 AM and another at 3 PM; outside of this range, there are low ebbs, but no time when everyone is completely off. This insight, in turn, contains four empirical observations that are the proverbial “elephants in the room” that business leaders must account for in remote and hybrid work. These are:

  • digital workers are working odd hours alone;
  • the digital workday is truly endless;
  • the digital team is usually not all together; and
  • midday constraints matter much more during the digital workday.

Research shows that the digital day implies working odd hours, alone. This means that although the “regular” work hours of 9–5 have survived the transition to remote work, this only accounts for about 60% of the work effort of the team. An average team member on an average team spends around 40% of their work hours essentially working apart from their team members — and outside of regular working hours.

Second, the digital day is truly endless. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of emails arriving from team-members at all hours of the day — from team members who log on early or burn the midnight oil. What the latest research shows us is that this is not a scattered or one-off phenomenon. Even at the lowest point in the workday — 4 AM — on average 10+% of any team is available and putting in 30+ minutes of work in the hour. Given any average team size of 10 individuals, this means that one member of the team is typically online and working, no matter what time of day or night it is.

Third, digital teams are rarely all together. Research shows that the average overlap measured across digital teams, maxes out at approximately 71% during 10–11 AM, and then again at 60% during 3–4 PM. This means, on average, that at least 29% of the team is not online — no matter what hour of the workday it is.

Fourth, midday constraints matter. Research shows thattTeam overlap drops gradually after 10 AM, to a trough in the 12–1 PM slot, before recovering gradually again for the 3 PM afternoon peak. This slow drop and extended recovery is produced by different members of the team taking breaks at different points in the middle of the workday. There is no longer any social reason for people to take their lunch breaks together, so in the digital world, they lunch on their own time.

All these changes make the digital workday practically and psychologically different from traditional office work and which in turn trigger a number of questions which come about naturally: Does the work schedule actually matter? What does all of this mean for productivity?

There is today a lot of research that has been done on remote or hybrid work and productivity. In essence the final results of all this research is that on average there is no correlation between the time of the day and the location work is being done and the hourly productivity. In effect, the result of remote working is that team members naturally schedule their work so that their hourly productivity is constant.

On the other hand, research is indicating that greater or lower team overlap is however an important factor for productivity; and by looking at how hourly productivity is related to team overlap, once can see that the largest chunk of business processes performed by teams are positively correlated with team overlap. This means that having a colleague around to give you that input you needed or to help you clarify how to do your work is often productive.

What does all this mean for managers and business leaders?
Business leaders and managers must consider how the digital workday might lead team members to push themselves harder or work odd hours. In some cases, team members may need to work for more hours in order to achieve the same outcomes. In other cases, the amount of work time may appear more burdensome when performed alone, at odd hours of the day or night, without much social cohesion and contact. Teams can address these challenges through a digital team charter, which establishes norms on work hours and team overlap. Some specific areas of focus include:

  • Making time to be together: You should establish “together hours” where 50+% of the team is expected to be online and working together.
  • Not forcing overlap: You shouldn’t be concerned if your team is not overlapping and is unable to achieve 50+% overlap all the time. In every team there are processes that appear to be best performed individually, at times of low overlap.
  • Do not micromanage: Allow your employees the flexibility to schedule their business processes as per their personal timing preferences. Research clearly indicates that most team members are perfectly able to naturally conduct their work at the times of the day when those business processes could be most efficiently performed.
  • Letting people log off: Establish norms for your team members to take the time and space to do focused work by establishing specific hours in the calendar where no team meetings are to be scheduled and team members are expected not to contact each other unless absolutely necessary, and “do not disturb” flags that individuals can use to signal when they need to focus.

Rather than thinking that remote working is a perk, business leaders and managers need to focus on reducing the toil of digital work. This presents serious challenges in a remote/hybrid work context since managers can no longer walk the hallway and build managerial intuition. Reducing physical toil requires objective assessment of what the end-user is doing at work; how that work is organized into structured vs. unstructured processes; and how those processes can be improved through multiple levers such as process improvement, user training and any upgrade of underlying IT applications.

Remote work is here to stay — and with it, new challenges for collaboration and productivity. Research corroborates prior notions of the remote workdays as being “unending” — with productivity stretched across all hours of the day. At the same time, research indicates various instances where working alone can sometimes be productive — and in many cases, employees seem to be doing a good job of allocating tasks across different periods of the day. However all this highlights the importance of establishing norms around team overlap to improve business operations — and make remote working more sustainable for employees in the long run.

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