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October 17, 2021

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Too Orangey For Business

The Endless Digital Workday

After nearly a year and a half of decentralized collaboration, companies all over the world are redefining their vision of 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.

To restore balance and sustain productivity, leaders need to reckon with exactly what has happened to their employees’ work lives. Unlike with prior digital work technologies, which were typically adopted first by either the busiest executives (top-down), or by employees in field support, sales, or remote locations (outside-in), Covid-19 forced many office teams into working solely atop digital technologies all the time. For the average worker and frontline manager 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. And as hybrid and remote options become mainstream, companies need to incorporate positive and negative learnings from the pandemic year. The “new normal” in fact demands new norms for work itself.

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.

To understand the patterns and implications of team overlap during remote work, we studied the work behaviors of 187 individuals across six Fortune 500 companies that have transitioned to remote work in 2020. (These companies were all clients of Soroco, an enterprise software company focused on understanding the “work graph” of how teams interact digitally, where three of the authors work.) The workers in our sample were spread across 22 teams, with an average team size of about 10 members. All of these workers previously had well-defined office locations and office hours; virtually none of them do now.

We found a number of patterns in teams’ work behavior, and saw in particular that overlap is important to consider when developing new norms for remote and hybrid work. Understanding these trends is essential to figuring how to lead teams as they navigate new modes of working. Managers can use these sorts of analyses in guiding a digital team charter, which can help preserve the flexibility of remote and hybrid work, while counteracting the psychological and practical downsides many workers experienced over the past year and a half. 

Always on, but never all together.

Our findings confirm 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 (as outlined in the first graph, below).

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.

The graph of this data tells us a few important things.

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 managers must account for in remote and hybrid work: 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.

First, the digital day implies working odd hours, alone. The “regular” work hours of 9–5 have survived the transition to remote work, but they only account for 60% of the work effort of the team. An average team member on an average team spends 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 our data 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 the team is available and putting in 30+ minutes of work in the hour. Given that the team size in the sample is 10.2 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. In our dataset, we saw a few teams that mimicked in-person hours, meaning that 90% of the team was online during traditional work hours. However, this is not the norm. The average overlap measured across all 22 teams in our dataset, 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. Team 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.

Does the work schedule actually matter?

What does all of this mean for productivity?

While our data set does not contain time tracking from before our teams transitioned to remote work, we observed (the second graph) that — on average — there was no correlation between the time of the day and hourly productivity. The 22 teams in our data set performed a total of 39 business processes, and each team member could choose when they performed each task. In effect, team members naturally scheduled their work so that their hourly productivity was constant.

Greater or lower team overlap was however an important factor for productivity; and by looking at how hourly productivity is related to team overlap, we saw that the business processes performed by our teams fall into three categories, according to whether having other team members online can help, hurt, or have no effect on completing certain tasks.

  • 41% of business processes were positively correlated with team overlap: Having a colleague around to give you that input you needed or to help you clarify how to do your work is often productive. In 16 out of the 39 processes that we studied, we saw workers were nearly 25% more productive during 9–5 than time elsewhere. Examples of such work include finalizing rates for insurance quotes, creating and approving production plans, and managing changes to the inventory.
  • 33% of business processes were neutrally correlated with team overlap: In 13 out of the 39 processes that we studied, productivity did not appear to depend on whether team members were working at the same time — and thus, it didn’t seem to matter when in the workday these tasks were completed. Example of such work include creating purchase orders and monitoring supply-demand status of products and warehouse allocations.
  • 26% of business processes were negatively correlated with team overlap. In 10 out of the 39 processes that we studied, team overlap was associated with low productivity — 28% lower during regular work hours, compared to times with lower team overlap. Perhaps worryingly, team members often conducted these processes between 9 AM–5 PM when there was high overlap. (That said, our data do not allow us to rule out the possibility that some of the negative correlation in this category was driven by team members shifting work on the most difficult parts of tasks to periods of high overlap.) Examples of such work include releasing purchase orders and updating employee details in a database.

Business processes in the first category benefit from team members working together at the same time; those in the second category are particularly good candidates for being conducted remotely in the long run; and those in the third category would benefit from explicit norms allowing team members to work on them remotely without distraction.

Lessons for Managers

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. In our data set, we saw that teams had on average 7+ hours in the workday during which more than half the team was consistently online. Those hours are also when you should schedule business processes that benefit from having greater team overlap — as well as making and communicating decisions that affect the entire group.
  • Not forcing overlap: You shouldn’t be concerned if your team is not overlapping in a contiguous 7-hour block, or if the team is unable to achieve 50+% overlap all the time. (In our data set, we saw team overlap range from of 4-10 hours a day.) In every team there are processes that appear to be best performed individually, at times of low overlap.
  • Not micromanaging schedules: Allow your employees the flexibility to schedule their business processes as per their personal timing preferences. In our data, most team members appeared 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. These take two forms: “heads down” time, i.e., 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.

The digital charter you create shouldn’t be a static document — you should revisit it regularly (e.g., at the start of each quarter) as your team gains experience with digital collaboration.

Managers also 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 on a sustained program of toil reduction. 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, automation, and upgrade of underlying IT applications.

Managers can rebuild their intuition either through periodic retrospectives (as part of their digital team charter), via the use of internal or external operations consulting teams, or via the use of new tools that apply computer science to understanding how teams work in a digital environment.

***

Remote work is here to stay — and with it, new challenges for collaboration and productivity. Our research corroborates prior accounts of the remote workday as being “unending” — with productivity stretched across all hours, and periods of employee isolation. At the same time, we found that 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.

Our analysis highlights the importance of establishing norms around team overlap, and suggests some simple strategies for combating the remote work’s practical and psychological downsides. With this sort of research, we can use lessons from the pandemic period to improve business operations — and make them more sustainable for employees in the long run.