Focus, Collaboration, and the Elephant in the Zoom:

The Covid Pandemic & Hybrid Working Models

Introduction

A recent paper, “Work from home & productivity: evidence from personnel & analytics data on IT professionals”, by Michael Gibbs, Friederike Mengel and Christoph Siemroth, that studied more than 10,000 employees of an Asian IT company, between April 2019, and August 2020, brought out interesting highlights:

  • An average employee worked 30% higher from home, in terms of total hours, than before the pandemic, including an 18% increase in working outside normal hours.
  • However there was no increase in rise of outputs – in fact productivity measured as an output per hour fell by 20%.
  • The authors – trained academicians, behind the study, then did a classification of work – ‘Focus hours’ – where the employee worked on tasks uninterrupted by calls and virtual meetings, and ‘Collaboration hours’ – time spent in various meetings including planning, review and coordination.
  • They emerged with a not-so-surprising trend – The Focus hours decreased during the pandemic, and the Collaboration hours increased tremendously – meetings ended up eating more time and energies of the employee.  
  • Lastly, and most interestingly  – work from home also led to employees missing out on being trained, on learning experiences, and on being coached.  

Collaboration Hours: The Elephant in the Zoom

While the researchers behind the study raised interesting hypotheses on several aspects – including how managers were holding more and perhaps longer meetings, because they were either unsure of how their teams and reports were working or that they were suffering from the anxiety of wanting to validate their own existence.

There are other speculations and hypotheses that I have, given my experience of coaching senior managers as well as anchoring learning on-line interventions in the past 15 months – I think the label of ‘Collaboration Hours’ deserves more scrutiny:

  1. Theme 1: The Notion of Resilience

Most ‘collaboration hours’ that I have witnessed and been privy to – comprise of largely coordination and process reviews – and have been extremely transactional in spirit. Work and value adding processes, has been stripped of all human connect and reduced to a mechanistic understanding of tasks and activities.

In this reductionist mindset, hierarchy and status become the preferred levers to push others for performance. The supervisors would rarely share their own anxieties, fears, vulnerabilities, or find time and energy for anchoring humanistic processes such as dialogue or sharing of feelings. I agree with the report that that more anxious the supervisor felt, the lesser time was devoted to ‘Focus hours’.

In fact my sensing is that senior managers found it extremely difficult to commit to Focus hours – as the trend was to pack the day with back to back virtual meetings from early mornings to late evenings. Thus processes such as analytical thinking, learning, strategizing, innovating  and ideating were being postponed – and perhaps all the time, as a collective frenzy around fears of losing customers, losing market share, and losing immediate revenues took toll of managerial energies.

It was easy to understand and even empathize with this panicked frenzy, but what was not easy to comprehend was a collective resistance to express, and work with feelings. And several of these feelings such as depression, loneliness, impotence, despair, and anxiety – were seen as ‘taboos’. All of such feelings were perhaps being denied ad sacrificed at the masculine alter of ‘resilience’ – a word that has attained significant if not immense popularity during the pandemic.

I think most managers loved using the word ‘resilience’ – believing and subscribing to an untested understanding that resilience comes from – not listening and even denying such taboo feelings – but that resilience comes from a robotic, rationalistic, and dogmatic adherence to stipulated tasks and activities.

HR leaders, were asked to build such resilience as a competency and almost instantly; while also committing to strange and regressive notions of employee engagement such as collective Zumba dancing or playing ‘antakshadi’ – an Indian game of singing etc. There was of course a 100% compliance expected on such activities as well …

  • Theme 2: (Large) Group Meetings & Denial of Intimacy as well as Equalization

One of the economist’s writers – Bartleby offered an interesting law – applying to all meetings that had more than 10 members. “80% of the time of 80% of the people in meetings is wasted.” This was of course a derivation of what C. Northcote Parkinson, an academic and legendary writer on management proposed in 1957. Parkinson came up with the law of triviality, that “the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.”

Both Bartleby and Parkinson refer to large group meeting anchored by managers who may not have any real skills or understanding of large group / collective behaviour. This gets further acerbated by conducting such meetings online. Many managers are unaware to how such meetings are experienced by others. A parallel and yet inaccessible communications on WhatsApp groups is always beeping and silently humming where people share their emotions, their respective disgruntlement, their rage, and yet remain stoically present to what you have to say.  

One of the speculations that I have is that a Zoom meeting actually builds intimacy when two people work on this forum. You have to look into each other’s eyes, the experience is of sitting close to and in front of each other; the technology window equalizes both of you into same sized squares – there are no executive desks that shield you; and you cannot avoid a glimpse into each other’s personal spaces unless you use screens or hear background noises.  Several managers prefer large group meetings to escape this unconscious fear of intimacy and equalization of one on one encounters

  • Theme 3: Alienation and the Design of Work for the Hybrid Model of Work

This theme is exciting academics and consultants all over the world. The design of work is being challenged in these times, as human interaction is stripped from the core value chain. Earlier monotonous, repetitive, extractive, and non-creative work could be enmeshed with human interaction and made ‘tolerable’ or ‘bearable’. This luxury is not feasible today and the design of work is extremely stark today.

Marx who spoke of the theme of alienation, would not have been clearer with the sheer de-humanizing dimension of unbundling of complex creative work into an assembly line mindset. At least earlier the factory canteens and the coffee machines offered some solace and some comfort to the alienated employee during the breaks. The pandemic offers no such compensation.

Thus I guess every employee and manager has to come to terms with how work is designed today. I see Collaboration meetings actually sabotaging the need for Focus hours, where there is some fulfilment of the joy of creativity.

Conclusion

This blog was triggered by conversations with EUM partners who were excited about leveraging the EUM framework – particularly the Network strand that the framework offers for design of organizations and work. If I was to look at the phenomena of hybrid model of work, I would rather focus on other strands of EUM – aspects of belonging and protection or listening and empathy that would allow for humanization of work.

I have chosen not to offer solutions (as usual) but bow to the demand for action points – here are a few ideas:

  1. Keep your meetings short
  2. Try and work with smaller numbers of attendees – from 3 to 6
  3. Initiate and anchor rituals that allow for replenishment and catharsis, and budget at least 1/3rd the time for such as well as listening
  4. Plan for at least 45 minutes between meetings – allowing you to track and work on ‘Focus’ hours. Cascade this work ethic down the organization.
  5. Create institutional spaces where people get together and talk about non-task themes and issues
  6. Training, Learning and Coaching sessions are part of the 8-hour day routine and are legitimate to organizational agenda. Plan these 1 on 1 sessions.
  7. Lastly, maintain tight time boundaries for task meetings. Buttress your meetings with tools such as Slack that allow for asynchronous interdependencies.    

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