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Insights Employee Experience

How HR thinks about employee well-being when everyone is working from home

One of the cool things about 2020 was that I got to broaden my horizons and meet with a bunch of HR professionals over the course of the year to learn about how they view the world of EUC. This was cool for me since I’m a technologist, so thinking about EUC and working from anywhere through the human lens instead of a tech lens was an eye-opening experience.

To that end, I’m collecting and sharing what I learned on this blog, starting last week with a post which set the stage for how HR folks think about productivity and why it’s important to figure things out as you go along.

For Part 2 of my series, I’m going to shift focus to the individual. This isn’t going to be a post about “How to work from home,” since that was the hot topic ten months ago, and by now we’ve all more-or-less figured it out. Rather, the angle for today will be “How HR professionals think about the health and well-being of their collective employees now that they’re working from home.” I’m going to focus on three topics:

  • Trust and fear
  • Work–life balance
  • Stress and well-being

You can also go ahead to Part 3, which covers skills and training, measuring effectiveness, quality of work, and employee satisfaction and retention.

Before we dig in, I’ll share the same disclaimer that I did last time, which is that this post is an IT pro’s perspective on what’s interesting about how HR pros think. My purpose is not about specific guidance for HR since I am in no way qualified to share that. Rather, I want to give perspective to IT pros about HR.

Trust and Fear

In my last post, I mentioned that productivity tracking and employee monitoring tools are part of a larger conversation about the trust between employees and HR. While I don’t want to get into the weeds of tools that attempt to quantify productivity, I will say that the HR folks I spoke with were extremely aware of the pressure their employees feel about trying to look productive to their colleagues.

Several HR professionals used the term “productivity theater” to describe the tactics their employees are leveraging—whether consciously or subconsciously—to appear productive while they’re not in the office. (This is a play on the term “security theater”, which refers to security measures which give the impression of increased security while not actually preventing security threats.)

Productivity theater includes things like:

  • Accepting all meeting requests to increase “presence,” even if that person isn’t needed in meetings.
  • Accepting all meeting requests to create a busier calendar to appear more engaged and/or needed, and to look busier when colleagues try to schedule meetings or when their boss looks at their calendar.
  • Chiming in on meetings for the purpose of being seen and heard, rather than for adding real value to the conversation.
  • Replying to emails after hours to appear to be working longer hours. (Bonus points for using Outlook’s delayed send feature to deliver emails at random hours.)
  • Replying to all to “join the conversation”.

Productivity theater is certainly not new. (Remember the “boss key” from 1980s computer games, or the quick tab change on Facebook that always seems to happen when you walk up to certain coworkers’ desks?) It’s just that everyone working from home now means that everyone is rethinking the question of “How do I ensure my manager understands that I’m doing good and valuable work and that I should not be laid off?”

Obviously, productivity theater hurts overall productivity, since in addition to time wasted by those engaging in it, it also forces everyone in their orbit to sift through and filter out make-work schemes in order to find to the real work.

It emerges in environments where there’s a lack of transparency and trust, whether it’s a manager not trusting their employees, or employees not trusting that other employees will think they’re really working. Productivity theater also tends to increase when the economic outlook and job markets decrease. (Say, during the economic slowdown caused by a global pandemic.) In that type of environment, employees who are disengaged from their jobs and might otherwise quit find that they can’t change jobs as easily, so they might as well fake like they’re busy at the current job they can’t leave.

I’ll admit that I personally have engaged in productivity theater while at VMware. One of the cool things VMware HR did early in the pandemic was to request that the typical half hour and hour meetings be adjusted down to 25 and 50 minutes, respectively, to allow for quick wellness breaks during meeting marathons. They even coordinated with IT to set the default durations for new meetings in Outlook to reflect this, and I can confidently say that most of the meetings I attend now are scheduled this way. That said, in my experience it’s been rare for meetings at VMware to actually end as scheduled, with them continuing to run the full hour or half-hour as they would’ve before the pandemic. Personally, I am hyper-aware of the clock during meetings, but when the scheduled meeting end time arrives, no one speaks up to end the meeting, including me! Why is that?

In my case, I’m afraid to speak up, because I don’t want to be that nerd who says something like, “Hey everyone, HR said we need to end meetings on time, and we all want to be good rule followers, right?” What’s really striking about this is I’m in a position of leadership at VMware EUC. I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years, everyone knows me and my history, I’m not worried about being fired, and yet even I’m afraid to speak up!

I asked the HR folks I spoke with what could be done to help prevent or minimize productivity theater. Most felt that that it will never be eliminated completely, since it’s always been present. However, the key is to approach it the way that you might approach in general, and to ensure your employees know you care about results, and not how much they’re working. (Assuming that’s true, of course.) Inc. Magazine had a good piece on this several years ago if you’d like to read more.

Work–Life Balance

In my last post, I wrote that in many cases, productivity didn’t drop when everyone left the office last year because employees were working through their commute and lunch hours now that they’re working from home. While this is great in terms of more work output, it’s not good in terms of employee work–life balance—again, a topic that HR professionals are acutely aware of.

The feelings that cause employees to engage in productivity theater are the same ones that motivate overworking, namely, fear. Whether it’s fear of losing a job, fear of being passed over for opportunities or simply fear of coworkers thinking you’re not pulling your weight, fear is a powerful motivator.

Combine that with the uncertainty of the world and the practical fact that there aren’t as many opportunities to leave the house, and it’s easy to understand why employee work–life balance is one of the top concerns that most HR professionals mentioned last year.

It’s a challenge without a simple solution. Again, I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve personally been working from home since 2001. It took me years to become fully adjusted and comfortable not working 24/7, and that was in a climate where I wasn’t worried about a global pandemic, the economy and I could still go out and have drinks with my friends and hug people. I can’t imagine what it was like to learn the home-working skills in the chaos of 2020.

Working from home 20 years ago was quite novel, so in those days I fielded lots questions about what it was like. The main takeaway I remember telling people was, “It’s really more like living in your office versus working from your house.” I found that my work–life balance broke down pretty quick. Instead of working more-or-less 40 hours between 8-5, Monday through Friday, I sort of evolved to a part-work / part-not-work, somewhere between 6am and midnight, seven days a week. (Also, I’m pretty sure I evolved from working about 40 hours a week to 60 hours a week.)

While there is plenty of upside to allowing people to work how they want—for example, two hours on and one hour off over the course of 12 hours instead of a solid 8-hour block—for people who primarily worked in an office prior to 2020, most workers still had a significant, physical separation between their work and personal lives.

But once you start working from home full-time, suddenly the desk you walk by every trip between the bathroom and living room is your fully equipped office. Take together productivity theater and the fear of being judged, as well as the fact there’s nothing to do outside of your house, and it’s no wonder that lots of employees are working significantly more than they were pre-pandemic.

But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. HR practitioners are hyper aware of this. They’re trying everything they can to get people to not work more hours they intend, and to instill a culture of “You don’t have to go to every meeting.” But how’s this done, from a practical standpoint? Infusing company culture and values was difficult before the pandemic. Now that everyone is working from everywhere, it’s even more difficult.

Stress and Wellness

Many of the things HR is thinking about now are related to employee well-being and mental health. This is a topic that’s been covered in thousands of blog posts over the past year, so I don’t need to repeat much of what you’ve surely already read elsewhere. That said, there were a few novel things I heard in my HR conversations on this topic I’d like to share here.

Perhaps the most interesting thing was the stress that comes from “looking good” remotely. This is somewhat related to the social media stress of thinking that everyone else is having an awesome and amazing picture-perfect life completing their third marathon this month while you’re at home in the same clothes you’ve had on for three days tearing apart your wine box to squeeze the last half-glass out of the plastic bag.

But there’s also the stress of literally “looking good” on your camera, now that many companies instituted “please turn on your camera” meeting policies. This applies to how well-groomed you are, how well your lighting and sound are set up, how much you’re smiling and appear to be engaged, and how beautifully perfect your colleagues’ backgrounds are.

Stress city!

This is not what many people signed up for. And again, it’s not something that only affects more junior-level people. I had a call a few weeks ago with a very senior C-level customer who apologized to me for how crazy their hair looked and which they were clearly messing with for the entire call.

The HR professionals I spoke with had lots of practical advice for how to deal with this, but again, that guidance only really works if everyone follows it. Among the themes I heard were that everyone had to be “okay” with virtual backgrounds, colleagues who didn’t feel comfortable using their cameras, and that not everyone is an A/V engineer who’s going to have professional sound and lights.

This is something that affected me personally too, because early in the pandemic I spent thousands of dollars to essentially build a “professional” studio in my house for webcasts and speeches, which is awesome for customers. But I also used that same studio for random internal Zoom meetings, which would then always start with a few minutes of everyone telling me how good my audio and video were and then them apologizing for not having the same setup. I ultimately decided that I’m just going to use my iPad for everyday Zoom meetings and save the studio for the meetings where it’s appropriate.

Final Thoughts

Obviously, I’m just touching the tip of the iceberg here, but hopefully this shows you the types of things that HR professionals are thinking about these days. Again, I was impressed with the HR folks I met with last year and how engaged they were in trying to provide a working environment that’s healthy, productive and meaningful for their employees.

Listing out the new guidelines are easy: Take care of yourself. Focus on your mental health. Give yourself and those around you grace. Treat your body like it belongs to someone you love. Etc.

But for individual employees to actually grok and internalize these guidelines is much more difficult. In my final post, I’ll close out my series on my conversations with HR by digging into the cultural challenges and longer term effects of the “work from anywhere” policies that HR professionals are putting into place around the world.