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Research shows the digital workday never really ends. Are digital charters the solution?

Posted by Kanika Sinha

August 30, 2021    |     3-minute read (634 words)

Digital technology has long blurred the distinction between office and home for white-collar workers. And the office-home division has been further eroded by the shift to remote work amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The transition has not only changed where employees work, but also when they work. The traditional nine-to-five, Monday through Friday workweek has been replaced largely by working in bursts. Many employees are working at night, early in the morning, between household chores and caregiving responsibilities or any combination of the latter. 

Now research published by the Harvard Business Review confirms that the workday in this new culture literally has no end. Plus, employees are often working alone with minimal overlap with colleagues.

What the research found

The study assessed the work behaviors of 187 employees from six Fortune 500 companies. All previously worked in a physical office with well-defined hours but transitioned to 100% remote work in 2020 due to the pandemic.

The study identified 4 patterns in the digital workday

The digital workday falls into two distinct zones. 
An eight-hour, nine-to-five window where team members may work together.
A 16-hour window where they mostly work apart.

The digital workday truly is endless.  
The highest degree of worker overlaps occurs at 10 a.m. (about 70%) and 3 p.m. (about 60%). There is no time in the workday when everyone is offline. 
At 4 a.m., an average of at least 10% of the team is working. 
No matter what time of day, at least 1 in 10.2 individuals is working online.

Digital employees are working odd hours, alone. 
About 60% of work is completed from nine-to-five.
Some 40% of work is performed mostly solo and outside traditional hours.

Digital teams are rarely all together.
Across 22 sample teams, at least 29% weren’t online simultaneously, no matter what hour.
Team overlap troughs from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. and gradually returns for the 3 p.m. peak. 
The midday drop reflects workers’ differently timed breaks in the absence of a social lunch hour.  

The study found that productivity and team overlap are related only some of the time

Business processes were positively correlated with team overlap 41% of the time
Productivity is higher for some processes when team members work together at the same time. 

Business processes were negatively correlated with team overlap 26% of the time
Productivity is lower for some processes performed together and would benefit from explicit norms allowing it to be done without distraction. 

Business processes were neutral in correlation with team overlap 33% of the time. 
Productivity is unaffected by whether team members are working together for some processes. Such duties are good candidates for being performed remotely long-term. 

Implications

The digital workday is functionally and psychologically different for employees from the traditional office. Hours are scattered, 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. are peak overlap times and there is little opportunity to socialize. Some remote tasks hinder productivity when performed together but others are enhanced. 

In keeping with these findings, employers should create a digital charter that mitigates the downsides of remote work but maintains flexibility.   

Your digital charter should address these 4 elements:

Time together: Schedule hours when 50% of the team works together online. Slate business processes that benefit from overlap and communicate decisions affecting the team in the period.

Flexibility: Allow employees to schedule business processes based on personal preference. The majority of study participants naturally performed tasks when they could be most efficient.

Varying overlap needs: Not every business process requires social cohesion and group work. Target overlaps for business processes where they boost productivity.

Offline time: Allocate times when employees can do their focused work without interruption unless absolutely necessary. Employees can also use “do not disturb” flags to signal a quiet period.

 

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