Measuring the effect of COVID-19 on the ability to work from home

Posted by Pieter Rijken on Jul 20, 2020 2:55:51 PM
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Measuring the effects of Covid-19 v2.1

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic many countries went into a lock-down forcing employees to work from home. Although the measures taken are being relaxed more people are working from home than ever before. As a manager you want to know whether your employees are as productive working at home as they are at the office. A lot of research [1,2,3] focuses on efficiency. If you are running a service business you should focus on the flow of the work instead. Three strategies are presented that minimise the effects of working remotely.

The effect of employees working remotely
The concerns fall into two categories related to (a) the working environment and (b) to collaborating remotely. People work remotely for many years, so what is different since the COVID-19 pandemic? What has changed is that many countries have gone into a ‘lock down’ basically forcing people to work from home. Employees in families with children take over part of the school education program working in shifts to make ends meet. Second, due to the lock-down whole families are at home all working remotely making it more difficult to keep focussed. Thirdly, an ideal working space often is lacking from home.

Tools relieve some of the pain
To facilitate working from home we have also seen an acceleration on innovation related to tools [4] supporting online training, online workshop facilitation, online meeting facilitation. Despite of all the tools, flexibility and adaptability of people and organizations, working remote can’t be as good as working face-to-face and for the office [5]. How do we measure the effect of massively working remote?

We need a better measure
We should measure what is important to the customer. Most studies [1,2,3] and concerns focus on the productivity in terms of the number of activities done. While this makes sense for large volumes and standard orders, in the field of knowledge work we hardly encounter this. Customers don’t care about productivity. A focus on activities is an artefact of a focus on efficiency that is associated with Cost Accounting. In his work [6,7] Goldratt already values a focus on measures in terms of the goal (Throughput Accounting) more and calls these goal units. So, what are the goal units for knowledge work?

A business needs returning customers
To run a business means to have a business and have returning customers. The criteria that customers use to select [8] your services are important measures, if not, the most important measure. Very often lead time is one such key metric or key performance indicator. To have short lead times translates to having a smooth flow of customer orders from starting to work on them up-to completing them.

We are trying to answer the wrong question
Asking about the efficiency of remote working is asking the wrong question. We should be asking about the flow of work. A smooth flow is recognized by having short delays or no delays at all. A measure for smooth flow is ‘Flow Efficiency’. Lower values indicate long or many delays while high values are indications of little delays. Typical numbers in service oriented work range from 5 to 40% [9] where numbers in the order of 5-15% are more frequent. Focussing on efficiency, and the number of activities done by employees is focusing on the 5-15% and is only marginally relevant to your customers!

Focus on delays, not on efficiency
In environments of low flow efficiency focus on minimizing or completely removing delays instead of optimizing efficiency. Don’t focus on how productive people work at home but instead ask yourself how much working remote is delaying the work. This is a more important factor. Three strategies help you minimise the effects that remote working has on delays.

First strategy: take less orders
Taking an economic view, we know [10] that the coordination cost grows non-linearly with number of work items. Especially during the lock-down when coordination costs increase finding ways to reduce this effect is essential. The obvious measure is to reduce the number of work items by accepting less customer orders. This sounds counter intuitive, but reducing the number of customer orders means a faster delivery of the running orders leading to a higher production rate and more customer orders done!

Second strategy: capture the essence of meetings in policies
After applying the previous strategy some coordination still remains. A complementary strategy to further reduce the coordination cost is to capture the essence of the decision taking in a policy or business rule. This would make at least some of the meetings obsolete and increases autonomy of the employees and teams.

Third strategy: identify and change policies that hinder the flow of work
Large impact is made by identifying and changing the policies that cause delays or hinder (or even block) the flow of work. Delays include blockages that prevent being able to work on customer orders. Delays also include having a limited ability to work on customer orders. Make sure that your employees have the environment they need to do their work. For instance, is it possible to reduce the frequency of certain meetings? Do we have more people in the meeting than needed to support the decision taking?

Conclusion
In these times where many governments have reacted to the pandemic by mandating a lock-down, more people work remotely than ever before. To reduce negative effects one should not look at ways to increase efficiency but instead focus on the flow of work measured by flow efficiency. It is not an efficiency problem but a rather a flow efficiency problem. Look for ways of reducing delays. We identified three strategies for minimizing the effects of working remotely

  • Lowering the number of order to reduce coordination costs
  • Capture the essence of the decision taking in polices
  • Discharge people from any work other than working on customer orders

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References

[1] The productivity pitfalls of working from home in the age of COVID-19, https://news.stanford.edu/2020/03/30/productivity-pitfalls-working-home-age-covid-19/

[2] To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work from Home, https://hbr.org/2014/01/to-raise-productivity-let-more-employees-work-from-home

[3] 5 Tips to Work from Home More Effectively, https://hbrascend.org/topics/5-ways-to-work-from-home-more-effectively/

[4] Tools supporting online facilitation and collaboration include Mural, Miro, Nureva, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams.

[5] Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game, Chapter 3, http://athena.ecs.csus.edu/~buckley/CSc233/ACockburn_Communicating_Cooperting_Teams_Ch3.pdf

[6] E. M. Goldratt, Necessary but not sufficient. The North River Press, 2000.

[7] E. M. Goldratt, The Goal, Third edit. North River Press, 2014.

[8] D. J. Anderson and A. Zheglov, Fit for Purpose: How Modern Businesses Find, Satisfy, & Keep Customers. Blue Hole Press, 2018.

[9] M. Sete, “Flow Efficiency, the most powerful improvement driver,” Lean Kanban Central Europe (Hamburg), 2018. [Online]. Available: https://vimeo.com/302805126. [Accessed: 29-Mar-2020].

[10] SquirrelNorth, Kanban for remote teams, April 15th, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1147&v=mdbq_IvTEGc&feature=emb_logo

Topics: Agile Transformations, Digital Strategy, Product Management