As ag/hort scientists join their fellow New Zealanders in bracing for a return to lockdown and parts of Australia wrestle with a recent surge in case numbers, a new study shows how we can do better in the COVID-enforced work from home (EWFH) experience.
The study, by researchers at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), University of East Anglia (UEA), University of Greenwich, and Phone Free Day, is the first international empirical study of its kind. The findings highlight how technology used during the pandemic-enforced work from home (EWFH) period has changed the tools and culture of teamwork.
The article, “An Affordance Perspective of Team Collaboration and Enforced Working from Home During COVID-19”, is published this week in the European Journal of Information Systems.
During the near-global EWFH period, from 15-26 April, the researchers interviewed 29 knowledge workers from New Zealand, Australia, UK, USA, Sweden, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland.
They were asked about the role of technology during their EWFH experience. The study found that people working remotely used team collaboration technologies to enhance their delivery of outputs, and to maintain or foster relationships with their colleagues. In so doing, they established a new norm for the culture and practices of team collaboration.
Overall, the new way of working had a near-equal mix of positive and negative implications for teamwork, particularly in terms of knowledge-sharing, virtual meetings and networking.
Without easy access to a shared physical space, EWFH employees noted they had to have scheduled, rather than spontaneous, interactions with colleagues.
While this approach led to a decrease in the number of interruptions, it also impacted the kind of knowledge-sharing that comes through ad-hoc or unplanned discussions among workmates. Junior employees, in particular, felt hamstrung by the inability to easily gauge if a colleague was busy or available to provide advice or input.
Similarly, while screensharing of documents became common practice, it did not replace the value of in-person discussions.
EWFH participants agreed that regularly scheduled virtual team meetings helped mitigate feelings of isolation and maintained a sense of collegiality. However, the lack of boundaries between work and home proved challenging for some, particularly those with family commitments.
They reported that frequent meetings could feel burdensome as they tried to simultaneously manage work duties with children and other carer responsibilities.
Particularly for those respondents who usually work offsite, EWFH created a welcome sense of inclusivity and collegiality. This was largely because teams used the same technology channels to communicate during their EWFH. This shared approach helped “flatten” traditional perceptions of hierarchy among employees and enabled workers to meet colleagues they would not previously have connected with.
However, virtual networking events were also marked by a sense of “rigidity” because technological limitations meant that only one person at a time could speak.
Lead author, AUT’s Dr Lena Waizenegger, said the research team was surprised at how quickly employees and organisations pivoted to new technologies and approaches to work.
“We were amazed by the innovation capabilities and creativity of teams and businesses,” said Dr Waizenegger. “EWFH showed that remote or flexible working is not only feasible, it also has various positive effects that should be maintained even after the pandemic.”
Dr Wenjie Cai (University of Greenwich) said that the speed and ubiquity of lockdown helped create a strong virtual community.
“Organisations did not have time to provide proper training to their staff, and many knowledge workers did not have the chance to fully prepare for remote e-working. But on the other hand, we were all in this together. For the first time in history, remote e-workers were not the marginalised group. People genuinely supported each other from a distance.”
Dr Brad McKenna (UEA) said EWFH created new possibilities for hybrid approaches to work.
“Employers were forced to simultaneously test and embrace a high-trust culture. Overall, employees proved that they can be trusted in this kind of environment, so that will influence how we work now and in the future.”
Taino Bendz (Phone Free Day) noted that the study offers important insights into maximising the benefits of hybrid working.
“When managed and communicated well, EWFH can provide opportunities to improve productivity – for example, so employees can spend less time commuting and more time focused on digital transformation. These kinds of efficiencies are invaluable for companies in these uncertain times.”
The research can be found here.