As an entrepreneur in the era of Covid-19, I’ve experienced firsthand the lockdown implications on a startup. I’ve also been closely following other tech leaders as the industry comes to terms with the “new world” of remote work. Most people seem to fall into one of two camps:
- Remote work is great because it gives employees flexibility and improves productivity
- Remote work is dangerous because it leads to employee burnout
A recent article from Atlassian in the second camp (titled “Proof our work-life balance is in danger”) shows data on Jira users and how their work days got longer post-Covid. At first glance, it paints a concerning picture.
But it got me thinking: is it possible that the story is more complicated than either of these two extremes?
Not more, but...different
Let’s start by taking a look at a great chart from Jira’s post.
In this chart, the horizontal axis shows the hour of the day. Blue bars represent times of day with increased activity after lockdown, while orange bars represent times of day with decreased post-lockdown activity.
It’s certainly true that every country has seen an uptick in work outside of normal hours. But notice that the orange lines are somewhat longer than the blue ones – meaning that this activity increase is generally offset by an activity decrease during normal hours. On balance, most countries seem to show roughly the same amount of total activity (or even a little less) post-lockdown.
So: burnout of employees from hard work? I’m not sure. From personal experience, I would speculate that the risk of burnout is due to an increase in non-work-related responsibilities at home, many of them having to do with having kids.
For example, if we’re in lockdown and my kids are around, I work more when they are asleep (8pm-12am) and when my partner is around to help (weekends). But when they are under my supervision, I need to feed them, entertain them, help them when Zoom doesn’t work, and often resolve their fights.
Am I more tired? Yes. Do I get to spend more time with my family? Yes. Am I more burned out of work? Well...I wouldn’t describe it that way. And most of the people I’ve spoken to in the tech industry – as tired as they are – are quite happy with this new reality of work-life-balance.
Impact on productivity
Number of hours worked is just one measure of potential burnout (and a pretty crude one at that). What about productivity, measured by actual output? After all, people could be working the same number of hours. But a constant pressure to deliver more in the same timeframe could absolutely contribute to an acceleration of burnout.
To answer this question, we looked to Acumen’s own dataset.
Part of what we do at Acumen is stitch together data from various sources and systems to get a clear picture about what's going on within the dev team. Understanding the team requires us to visualize the work patterns of individual developers. This enables us to calibrate progress, velocity, quality, and throughput of the whole team – and provide predictions and insights to help teams deliver faster and better.
Looking at the aggregated data of some of our customers, we observed something interesting. Not only were total hours virtually unchanged between the two lockdowns (first April/May, second September/October) and the period in between – so was throughput.
So in aggregate, it appears that productivity was not much impacted by Covid-related work from home restrictions.
But that doesn’t mean that every team member’s experience was the same. On the contrary, data at the individual level reveal fascinating changes in behavior that can teach us about the new WFH reality.
A Tale of Two Developers
Let’s consider two developers from the Acumen team. Developer A has no kids. Notice the throughput rise during the first lockdown in April and May 2020 – followed by a drop when we returned to the office, followed by a similar increase in the second lockdown of September and October.
Developer A (Acumen Backend Dev – No Kids)
Developer B, in contrast, has two kids at home under 10 years of age. Notice the throughput drop in the first lockdown in April and May 2020, followed by an increase when the kids returned to school in June, followed by a dropoff once again beginning in August (summer vacation for kids) and continuing into the second lockdown of September and October.
Developer B (Acumen Backend Dev – 2 Kids Under 10)
The Bottom Line
The quest to bring nuance to the binary debate about the benefits/harms of remote work left me with three key takeaways:
- The common perception that working from home causes us to work harder is probably wrong. We don’t work more – we work differently. And that’s okay. :)
- Obviously there’s a big difference between a lockdown and a “normal” WFH scenario, as during lockdowns we have many more interruptions. The challenge is greatest for those of us with young kids – and the reality is that in most cases our productivity tends to drop.
- For the (happy) childless developers, a lockdown may definitively cause working more hours and potentially burnout. But the data shows that it can’t last long – and usually after a period of high-effort lockdown work, there’s an inevitable “correction” marked by a drop in productivity.
Ultimately, the most important lesson to me as a company leader is around trust and autonomy. The data suggest that team members seem to have a well-tuned “equilibrium” mechanism, at least over a reasonable time horizon, for getting work done while avoiding burnout and navigating the intricacies of home life. Giving them the flexibility to find that balance ensures that they’ll be at both their happiest and their most productive.