From Temporary to Transformative: Work from Home Insights

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What is the Aim

During COVID-19, when our 1,300-member workforce was suddenly forced to work remotely, we were presented with an opportunity to seize upon the disruption to study our effectiveness. We wondered: Will remote work change our productivity? Once people work from home, will they ever want to come back to the office? And if they do want to come back, how can the office best complement any advantages of working outside the office?

We conducted this research to identify how the work-from-home experience could inform the future of workplace design. Our objectives were:

  • To understand the nuances of how working from home has affected people differently based on living conditions and demographics
  • To keep a pulse over time on how our employees’ health and well-being evolved
  • To identify how work processes changed while people worked outside our corporate offices
  • To understand how people’s preferences for flexible work experiences are changing
  • To identify implications and strategies that can inform flexible work policy and behavior
  • To learn how working from home will impact what people want from the office when they return

What We Did

On Friday 3/13/2020 HKS sent its employees in the US home to work remotely. We conducted weekly (and then monthly) surveys to glean insights into their work-from-home experiences. We devised questions that offered insights into our employees’ mental health and social connections, environmental conditions, work processes and more.

We developed survey modules on the themes of health and well-being, communication, work from home behaviors, flexible work experience preferences, psychological safety, and environmental satisfaction. We conducted surveys weekly from March through May, 2020, and we continue to deploy monthly surveys at the time of this report. On average, 400+ employees participated in each survey, representing approximately 30% of our firm.

What We Found

People Want Boundaries, Regardless of Where They’re Working.

Switching between digital and physical, home and office, work and life, is hard. From physical boundaries that separate work vs home life zones, to notable drops in work-life balance after 20 hours of meetings a week, we see the need to design boundaries. These designs should clarify limits and borders in both space and time, which are all too easy to blur. We think there is an opportunity here to design different kinds of thresholds for different kinds of experiences.

“I feel that my work is always present, and it is just going from the bedroom to work and back and there is not a separation and guilt about not working during the day at all times.”

We’ve consistently seen that people feel more connected to their teams than their own families.

Home Workspaces are not Created Equally.

The design of each person’s living environment has an impact on their satisfaction with working from home. Those living in apartments were less satisfied overall than those in single family homes. People living in apartments don’t always have as much access to nature or outdoor spaces, which can lead to less satisfaction. Regardless, working remotely offers people the ability to take control over and adjust their work experience, which is beneficial. Can we apply these lessons to improve both office and residential experiences?

Employees Want Flexible Work Options.

When our teams were forced to work remotely, they invented new ways of connecting, developed new communications patterns, and found themselves connecting more with people across our network of offices, yet less with people in their own office. Overall, people enjoy the ability to work from home, and in the future want a balance of time at and away from the office. Our challenge will be to determine: what work happens where, and when does it happen?

These insights, with many more outlined in the pages that follow, help us understand how to design more healthy, productive environments for knowledge workers.

This study resulted in both a set of survey tools for evaluating remote work experiences as well as strategies that individuals, teams, and companies can utilize.

What the Findings Mean

Rather than merely reacting, we intentionally dug in to understand how work could happen when all the variables changed. How does work happen when it’s no longer a place? This provides insight into the future of work, and from there we can define the future of place.

Learning from our ongoing research will help us think beyond reactionary short-term decisions, so that we are able to design a more intentional framework that identifies potential for business risk, recovery, resilience, and soon, reimagination.

As our work processes and preferences evolve, our designs and policies must evolve, too. As part of our Living Labs, our ongoing initiative of testing and innovation in our own offices, we will rethink our workplaces and work policies, both at the office and everywhere else work happens. Doing so will enable us to advise our clients and partners on how to do the same.

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