How humans actually work

A woman at a desk working at a computer.
(Image credit: Claudio Scott / Pixabay)

Historically, humans had a simple but hard job, hunting and gathering enough food in order to survive. These acts of survival, once part of daily life for hundreds of thousands of years, have only just recently been replaced. Since food is in high abundance, daily survival isn’t a concern in the developed world, and our daily lives have a different focus in the world of work. Modern work is divided into outputs, projects, products, productivity goals, achieving KPIs, and is spilt across industries and companies, with hundreds of departments that employ a variety of different roles.

About the author

Patrycja Sobera, VP of End User Experience, Digital Workplace Services, Unisys.

Humans have been wired to be part of a team ever since the time of cavemen, we are innately social creatures who thrive on collaboration and connection. Remote working brings new needs that require addressing to satisfy the in-built craving that humans have to explore, connect and socialize. In the modern work world, we call this collaboration and teamwork, so the concept of collaborative teams is challenged by the nature of remote working

So, how will teamwork and human to human connection be effectively maintained, and how will we deal with the continual work input without regular breaks over a longer day? As of late, the workday seems to have become longer despite factors such as a reduction in commute time, meaning that work volume and not necessarily productivity has increased in turn. Taking a deeper look into the ways that humans actually work will be vital for organizations looking to make the new hybrid workforce paradigm a success.

‘Zoom gloom’ – a new phenomenon

The fatigue caused by back-to-back meetings and no-rest days is a regular experience for remote workers. In some workplaces, time-zone work has increased zoom gloom to the point where employees even need to ask for bathroom breaks. Due to high levels of sustained concentration, fatigue typically begins to set in around 30 to 40 minutes into a video conferencing meeting. 

Looking at days filled with video meetings, stress begins to set in at about two hours into the day. Data shows that employees working from home were logging extra hours every single day, ranging from two hours in the UK, and three hours in the U.S. This represents between 25 percent and 38 percent increases in the volume of daily time spent working with no correlation as to whether it is productive or not. Clearly, this is a negative productivity cycle.

The psychology of continual work

It’s common knowledge that humans work best in short, sharp bursts. The Pomodoro Technique is as old as the rest of the productivity movement put together, and the psychology suggests that the most effective way for driving productive work is to set a timer for at least 20 mins, remove all distractions and work through a set body of work until the signal.

However, in reality, this isn’t possible in the modern world, but neither are constant calls and continual work delivery. Therefore, psychologists suggest that hour meetings should become 45 minutes with a 15-minute break to help prepare and re-energize, and 30-minute meetings should be 20 to 30 minutes. This way, we all become more productive. This is a fundamental shift for workforces and will require new culture, governance and performance management procedures.

The six pillars of the future of work

Technology is critical in the success of a move to effective hybrid working. Without it, there would be no remote working option at all. There are 6 pillars that can help to support the future of work whether employees are working totally remotely or the business is working to integrate remote workers into office environments.

1. Location flexibility simply means the ability to work at multiple locations. This means that through the organization embracing a ‘digitally elastic operating model’ and the acknowledgment and acceptance of new work behaviors, businesses can deliver more productively while providing an improved customer experience. The use of data and analytics tools will assist the hybrid workforce which can be flexed at short notice to address peaks in demand.

2. Integrated autonomy. This means the ability to assist the workforce. Embedding robotic process automation, AI and machine learning algorithms across the enterprise, including in the back office, will keep productivity high and ensure employees are at their most effective. When embedded end to end, it will provide further insight into customer behavior and enable further “shift left” activity to drive customers to self-service in new hybrid models.

3. Always On IT. Always On IT will be just that. Having capabilities in the cloud will ensure that employees can always access their work and deliver to the customer, and having digital channels hosted on cloud-based platforms ensures that revenue streams remain unhindered. In the back office, through the use of new automation tools such as sentiment analysis and just in time principles, IT departments can ensure that a seamless service is offered while proactively delivering problem solving capabilities.

The social side of tech:

4. ‘Digitally Connected’. This covers digital connectivity with colleagues and customers. Making work and interactions easier for employees and customers drives up adoption and provides a more seamless customer experience. Offering new innovative and simple interactions with customers like video support, messaging, and chat support in more cost-effective environments – such as the employee’s home – ensures a win-win for customer and company.

5. Collaboration and social is key. The provision of a collaborative environment means higher productivity in shorter sharper bursts. When based in employee-friendly locations, this also improves work life balance. Delivering these tools to employees provides a better and a stickier customer experience resulting in higher satisfaction.

6. Adaptable workspaces. With the experience based on COVID-19, no longer will office space be packed with rows of desks when cost analysis shows that operating from home with the right technology and employee support will be cheaper and more cost effective. Expensive office space will become much more adaptable and used for true collaboration.

In the front office, organizations may see significant reduction in contact center size and shape, but overall a more open and collaborative space, which is adaptable to the business needs, will emerge. Technology that underpins all of the above is needed to ensure the three Cs – connect, communicate and collaborate. When executed poorly, remote work can harm a company’s productivity, effectiveness, and culture. The organizations that truly make a success of hybrid working will be those that pay close attention to these six pillars from a technology perspective, and really take on board the realities of human productivity and psychology.

Patrycja Sobera, VP of End User Experience, Digital Workplace Services, Unisys.