Knowledge workers are more productive from home

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

For many years, we have sought to understand and measure the productivity of knowledge workers, whose inputs and outputs can’t be tracked in the same way as a builder, shelf-stacker, or call centre worker.
Knowledge workers apply subjective judgment to tasks, they decide what to do when, and they can withhold effort (by not fully engaging their brain) often without anyone noticing. This make attempts to improve their productivity very difficult.
In 2013, we presented research showing that knowledge workers spent two-thirds of their time in meetings or doing desk-based work, even though they found these activities mostly tiresome. We proposed some steps people could take to shift time to more worthwhile activities, such as talking to customers or coaching subordinates. Of course, we all get stuck in patterns of activity reinforced by the routines of office life.
But, then, in March 2020, the pandemic struck. Suddenly, many of us were sent home and forced to develop new ways of working. After several months, we now have a good sense of how our own day-to-day schedules have changed.  But we don’t know how generalisable our experiences are. So we decided to replicate the 2013 study, using the same questions as before and interviewing respondents with similar profiles.

About the Research

The individuals were selected randomly, subject to a few specific criteria: They had to have at least a bachelor’s degree, five years of full-time work experience, and a job in which effectiveness is determined by the use of brainpower and their capacity to make sound judgments. The age, sector, and experience of the respondents varied.
We broke down activities done into six categories:
  1. Desk-based work – alone
  2. Externally facing work – interacting with anyone outside the company, talking to customers
  3. Managing down – interacting with subordinates, coaching and supporting them
  4. Managing across – interacting with peers and colleagues, in meetings, often with many colleagues
  5. Managing up – interacting with the boss or other senior people
  6. Training and development

A. How Do Knowledge Workers Now Spend Their Time?

There have been two significant shifts:
  • 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.

However, lockdown doesn’t seem to have helped with hierarchy-spanning activities (managing up and down), presumably because it’s impossible to have the short, spontaneous meetings that used to be possible.

B. How Do Knowledge Workers Decide What to Do?

While most knowledge workers have a written job description somewhere, it is well understood that they take responsibility for choosing what to do and when to do it based on a variety of factors, including tasks outside of their formal role when it appears sensible to do so.
To get a sense for how these decisions are made, we asked study subjects to choose among four options for every activity:
  1. It’s a standard part of my job
  2. My boss asked
  3. A peer or colleagues asked me
  4. 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.


It seems we have been taking more direct charge of our time during lockdown.  Working from home gives us a bit of breathing space: We don’t have colleagues or bosses badgering us, and we don’t get drawn into meetings by force of habit, just because we happen to be around.  The result is a reassuring increase in us making time for work that matters most to us.

C. How Effective and Valuable Were These Activities?

Finally, we asked respondents about how important and energising they found each activity. The differences are striking.
In 2020, respondents say their work is more important, less tiresome, less easily offloaded and contributes to the company’s objectives.  Not only is their work important, they feel important as well!
Of course, there is some self-justification going on here: When we think our work is important, we are more likely to gain personal utility from it and less prone to delegate it. But it seems there is also some reprioritisation occurring, with people stopping some of the less-important activities they used to do and focusing their energy in a more effective way.


The findings here are consistent with the notion that knowledge workers are more intrinsically motivated — and taking more personal ownership — during lockdown, in large part because of the increased degrees of freedom they are getting.

Overall – Concerns and Challenges:

Working in lockdown has helped us to focus and to take responsibility – but that’s not the whole story.
Follow-up interviews revealed some of the areas of concern that we as individuals — and as leaders of others — need to understand:
  • 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:
    1. 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.”
    2. 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.
For many of us, the new socially distanced mode of working may continue for some time.  The good news for knowledge workers from the first phase of this experiment is that lockdown has helped us better manage and prioritise our schedules to favour the most value-added work. The challenge — as we move into the next phase where some face-to-face meetings are allowed — will be to bring back the informal and social elements of office life that are so vital to organisational and individual success.

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