In March 2020, a large share of businesses had to make remote work a norm, five days a week. The learning curve was steep, but in the short run, it seemed to boost productivity, especially by cutting commute times. Soon, however, a subtle shift in work practices — the way we collaborate, communicate, and manage — was observed.
Those almost imperceptible changes had direct consequences for employee well-being, but there has been a dearth of data and analysis to truly understand the effects of remote and hybrid work. Particularly in times of transition, the ability to collect relevant data and run experiments is crucial to identify potential issues posed by these new modes of working — and it can also show us the way forward.
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Starting in 2020, Vitality, a wellness and financial services firm, organized a large-scale study of more than 1,000 of its employees across all business units and four locations in its offices in the United Kingdom, focusing on their well-being, job capacity, and broader health and work outcomes. Automated data collection using Microsoft Workplace Analytics was complemented by supplementary weekly surveys over a five-month period. While many of our findings confirmed our intuition — that the shift to remote work might have made us more productive but at a cost to our well-being — there were also plenty of surprises, and we were able to identify several underlying mechanisms to better understand the new context of work.
The Cost of Productivity: The Erosion of Work-Life Boundaries
Working from home definitely made many people feel more productive — over half (55%) of the home-based workers we surveyed reported getting more work done. There is, however, a cost to this boost in productivity: When employees work from home, it can be difficult for them to compartmentalize their personal and professional lives, leading to a deterioration in work-life balance.
In looking at our data, this was not immediately obvious: While the average number of meetings increased by 7.4% during the period June 2020 to December 2021, the average number of hours spent collaborating with others after standard work hours decreased by 5.6%, with employees’ overall workweek spans remaining practically unchanged.
But averages can be misleading.