An interesting study has come up with the above headline finding – it was published in the Harvard Business Review and conducted by Professor Julian Birkinshaw and Pawel Stach of London Business School, and Jordan Cohen of Lifelabs Learning – extracts follow
About the Research
- Desk-based work – alone
- Externally facing work – interacting with anyone outside the company, talking to customers
- Managing down – interacting with subordinates, coaching and supporting them
- Managing across – interacting with peers and colleagues, in meetings, often with many colleagues
- Managing up – interacting with the boss or other senior people
- Training and development
A. How Do Knowledge Workers Now Spend Their Time?
- 12% less time managing across through meetings
- 9% more time doing externally focused work.
- Desk-based work continues to take a third of our time.
- Other changes — a little less time managing up and a little more time on training and development — were not statistically significant.
The evidence suggests lockdown has helped us more effectively prioritise our work. We still need to get through our emails and report-writing, but we are significantly less likely to get drawn into large meetings, and this leaves us more time for client or customer work and for training and development, which most people would argue is a good thing.
B. How Do Knowledge Workers Decide What to Do?
- It’s a standard part of my job
- My boss asked
- A peer or colleagues asked me
- I did it spontaneously, or it was important and I found time
In 2013, respondents said 52% of their activities were standard, 18% requested by a peer , 24% independent but important, and 3% independent and spontaneous.
In 2020, we are still spending half our time on standard activities, but we are doing only 8% because a colleague asked, and a full 35% because we thought the activity was critical. Spontaneity rose to 6% but this difference was not statistically significant.
C. How Effective and Valuable Were These Activities?
Overall – Concerns and Challenges:
- Some respondents cited the potential for shirking: “I am worried there is some slackening of effort. People are starting to get a bit too comfortable working from home,” said one. In our view, this is not a huge problem: There are many ways of informally monitoring how much time your colleagues are putting in via Outlook, Slack and other tools, and we should really be evaluating knowledge workers on their outputs not their inputs anyway.
- The bigger areas of concern were around the things people couldn’t do well in a virtual environment:
- Take managing across first: It’s not so hard for an existing working group to stay on course when working remotely, but the challenges of getting started on something new (the forming/storming stages of team development) or resolving internal conflicts are enormous. Of course, these activities can be done over Zoom – just not as well. Few people are energised by informal online get-togethers. As one person said, “We are slowly losing the social glue that holds us together.”
- Managing up and down are no less tricky under lockdown. Most respondents had instituted regular one-on-one catch-ups with their teams and bosses, but they usually focused on immediate task and personal well-being issues, rather than longer-term development. They missed the opportunity to bottom out difficult issues: “You cannot challenge a person quite so well over Zoom. You tend to hold back,” said one. They also lamented the loss of growth opportunities for their teams: “I used to throw people into new assignments, where they learned on the job, watching and learning from experienced colleagues. That’s almost impossible to do in a virtual setting.
- Finally, some people worried about their own training and development. While time spent on self-education went up during lockdown, this was mostly due to online webinar and course attendance — which helps build knowledge but doesn’t encourage the active experimentation and personal reflection that help us really grow.