Misconceptions of locked-down digital work

Covid-19 lockdowns have acted as a facilitator for digital work. But as people’s experience has occurred during exceptional circumstances, it has also led them to draw false conclusions.

Covid-19 lockdowns have forced millions worldwide to work from home and allowed many employees to connect in new ways, work more flexibly and establish new forms of leadership and work autonomy.

Many employees have felt they have had more time since working from home, although even more have struggled – for various reasons, for instance having to work around children not at school, sharing the home office with a partner or difficulties sticking to daily routines.

The high amount of video conferences and complete loss of physical interactions has also made working from home even more stressful and tiring.

These observations are related to the exceptional circumstances around the lockdowns – which, among other things, have contributed to shaping a false picture of digital work.

In order to understand what digital work is and is not, it helps to reflect on how digital work during the lockdowns has been different to what it can be (and already was for some).

“Digital work is (more) stressful and tiring.”

Digital work is shaped by individual practices embedded in an organisational context. During the lockdowns, most organisations have been in ‘crisis mode’. This has been reflected in the type of work required: high amounts of (often stressful) coordination work that has involved a higher need for (online) meetings, often leading to what traditionally has been called technostress and now is often related to as ‘Zoom fatigue’.

Accordingly, many employees now seem to think digital work means more time in meetings than before the lockdowns. However, digital work does not only entail (online) meetings. Experienced digital workers such as digital nomads, who often work across numerous time zones, have figured out ways to reduce the amount of synchronous communication, which enables them to focus on productivity.

“The adaption phase is over.”

Digital work practices often only develop over time as a part of employees’ sense-making process. The lockdowns, however, have been an extreme situation that has not given them the necessary time. Hence, many employees have felt an enormous pressure to ‘make digital work work’ that has not led to positive associations. Ideally, employees are now given more time to explore and experiment with the tools. The lockdown-driven adaption has started in many cases, but the exploration phase needs to be seen as an open-ended process.

“Digital work means a lot of video conferences.”

Many employees have subconsciously or consciously connected digital work with not being able to meet their colleagues. However, digital work did not impose physical distancing. Covid-19 did. Hence, it is important to keep in mind that digital work does not impose reducing the number of physical interactions. It instead allows focusing on bonding when meeting physically and for reducing travel to meetings that could easily be held online. Online meetings are much easier to set up than physical meetings and hence have happened more often. But does that mean they were unnecessary? It seems online meetings have been held in a more ad hoc fashion, if and when needed, rather than attending meetings scheduled weeks beforehand to accommodate room bookings and efforts to get to the meeting place.

“Digital work means I have to prove my value.”

In many adoption scenarios before the lockdowns, leaders would give their teams and themselves time to make sense of digital work, before they tried to align uses and cooperatively establish norms and rules – for example, how they expect team members to check in. This was not yet accomplished in many companies. Thus, the newly gained autonomy backfired for many employees, who felt they had to justify more often how they spent their workdays.

Experiences from the lockdowns seem to confirm this. Elana Feldman and Melissa Mazmanian note of locked-down digital work: “Because they’re not as visible, employees look for ways to demonstrate that they’re engaged and available. They might assume that they need to make themselves more reachable and responsive than before the move to virtual work, perhaps by working longer hours and replying more quickly to emails […] Employees spend more time online, proving they are ‘there’, and less time working productively, which makes coping with their individual needs and circumstances even harder.“

To conclude, employees have been neither less productive or perceived as such by their employers. Yet they have felt they have needed to make up for the reduced amount of visibility by communicating more than before.

And the future?

The appropriation of digital work tools by millions of employees worldwide will highlight new uses and benefits. For instance, executives have mentioned that they have perceived online meetings as less political and more focused on content. It seems this ad hoc adoption has led people to radically question existing face-to-face rituals such as the display of power during physical meetings. We need to understand better the benefits and drawbacks of more mixed modes of meetings – for example, alternating between online (if needed) and in-person (to keep track of progress, build bonds).

Moreover, as the increased amount of telecommuting will likely continue long after the pandemic, it will be interesting to see how remote work in organisations worldwide will change organisational policies and cultures in the long term. How will organisations enable remote work through facilitation and changes of rules? How will expectations towards the professionality of work from home change? (Will we still see funny Zoom backgrounds and occasional sweatpants in the future?)

Many organisations are only about to begin to understand how locked-down digital work has impacted their operations and what they can learn from it. Consequently, it is reasonable for them to observe how the practices have changed. They can then drive continuous adjustments to their information management landscape by exploring new use practices and promoting beneficial ones. Many organisations will also put efforts into consolidating the tools they now have, as the lockdowns led to an explosion in the number of those tools, similar to what we saw 10–15 years ago when the social media wave hit organisations.

Join Professor Alexander Richter and other leading experts from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington for a Zoom discussion of the future of work, digital technology and government after Covid-19. 12.30 pm–1.30 pm, Tuesday 9 June, register here (essential).

This article was originally published on Newsroom.