Work in Corona Era: Why remote work makes people *less* productive and what to do about it

Kristen Berman
Mar 16, 2020 · 7 min read

It might seem like the glorious era of remote work is upon us, driven by a pandemic push. Zoom! Slack! Who needs the office? The promise of uncompromised productivity paired with freedom is alluring.

I’m a behavioral scientist, though, so color me skeptical.

While software can ostensibly replicate the features of an office, there are some underlying behavioral tricks that physical offices have mastered. We may not want to discard them so quickly.

Let’s start in a not-so-obvious place: habits.

People often complain that they can’t start new habits. “I have tried but I just can’t seem to [INSERT: exercise, meditate, start new hobby.]”

On average, Americans report having tried to lose weight seven times in their lives. That’s at least six failed attempts (maybe seven) to do something that they are highly motivated to do. The $9 billion self-help industry has made its fortune selling us solutions that help us achieve the “simple” goals we want to achieve.

I’m here to tell you good news: There is a foolproof way for you to start a new habit, achieve your goals and improve your life. ;) Surprisingly, this system works across cultures. It’s known to everyone. You’ve even tried it.

It’s called… work.

Work works. It gets us to do small things (show up on time, respond to boring emails) and big things (launch new products that never existed before!). It helps us create habits and track progress. It allows us to learn hard things quickly.

Do you ever hear your friends complaining that:

“I just can’t muster up the energy to get my presentation done for tomorrow’s meeting.”

“I’m supposed to send this weekly update and I keep forgetting. I think I’ll skip it.”

“I told my team I’d deliver this project, but I am going to ghost.”

These are just not things we typically say.

Why are we productive machines in some domains — like work — but fall flat on our faces in other domains — like diet or meditation?

We tend to take this incredibly salient productivity gap for granted. We assume it’s all related to money. My work pays me to do work, so I do work. We assume it’s the money that makes us highly productive, reliable and consistent worker bees.

But let’s take a look at what work actually is. Work is basically a giant group accountability system.

  • We sit next to our team members every day from 9am to 5pm. We work on different tasks — but right next to each other.
  • We have daily or weekly meetings that ask team members to report everything they did yesterday and will do today.
  • We have team meetings with key stakeholders that require presentations to be prepped weeks in advance.
  • We have progress trackers that send out status reports on the project timelines.
  • We have shared deadlines that make us look bad if they’re missed.
  • We are part of quarterly and annual goals that are published to the company.
  • We have performance reviews to ensure we hit these goals. But if we don’t hit the goal? We debrief after it to change our strategy next time.

The craziest thing? At almost every corporation worldwide, work looks like this. Regardless of culture or domain, most companies have agreed on this structure.

David Laibson calls it private paternalism. Most people call it accountability. Work helps solve our self-control problems with incredibly effective accountability systems.

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It is much harder to check Facebook when your colleagues are right next to you

What’s at the root of why Work Works?

At work, our behavior is public.

Work makes our behavior visible to other people to help us get things done. Want to launch an incredibly complex product that requires building new innovations? Create a small team and commit to a public launch with aggressive timelines. This is what every tech startup in SF does. Just look at Google’s Developer Day or Apple’s Keynote launches. Apple committed to launch iOS 13 on June 3, 2019, and by golly they did it.

Launch events are incredibly successful accountability devices

These are really just massive accountability systems that help employees to do something they said they would do.

Personal goals are in the private sphere. In the private sphere we struggle.

In the public sphere, we understand there is an underlying norm about what should happen (“I should show up to this meeting prepared!”). We self-regulate on the basis of anticipated consequences of going against that norm.

Accountability is really just expecting you might have to justify your actions to others in relation to a pre-existing norm. And it works.

Accountability systems (making behavior public) have been shown to work within voting, school attendance, handwashing, charity donation and many other domains.

  • In Ely, Iowa, voters were told that if they didn’t vote, their names would be published in the newspaper. This drove voting rates by 6.9%.
  • A YMCA told their members how much their peers were going to the gym. They then told these members that their attendance would be publicized next month. This increased attendance by 17 to 23%.

When we know our behavior is in the public sphere, we anticipate what others will think and we end up modifying our behavior.

Work in Corona Era

As office work moves to remote work while the coronavirus continues to spread, work habits that were previously public will become more private. Is this a good thing? How will our productivity change?

It’s a nice idea to say that it won’t. This is the popular opinion. But the reality is that the nature of work shifts as it moves from public to private.

The very thing that allows us to be productive is changing.

  • Meetings that once were in person will be on Zoom or online. People often keep their video on for the first five minutes and then they turn it off. This reduces accountability and may lead to more distractions.
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Hard to interact with static faces
  • Workdays that were once coordinated and public (we all get in around 9 am and say hello) will now become uncoordinated and private. This freedom may be glorious, but it reduces accountability, and may lead to fewer hours worked.
  • Deadlines like conferences and public PR launches have been canceled. This relieves the public pressure and delays a key motivator for getting stuff done. This reduces accountability and may increase procrastination.

5 norms to institute within your team to stay on track

  1. Keep video on — for the whole meeting.
    If you’re in-person, you’d likely avoid checking email or surfing the web. Keep the same norms alive for remote meetings. This will also prevent the inevitable downfall of conference calls.
  2. Articulate and coordinate start and end times of the workday
    This creates a norm for when people should be “on”. While ‘working hours’ may feel implicit to your team, it should be re-articulated to ensure people are aligned in the new Corona era. As a bonus, this also helps people set boundaries on their work and not work late nights.
  3. Post public updates about daily or weekly progress
    Engineers have operationalized this for years. It’s called a daily standup — a 15-minute check-in to discuss blockers and the day’s priorities. It may be time for non-engineers to jump on the bandwagon. An easy way to start is with a Slack (or other messaging) channel devoted to updates.
  4. Add more deadlines and decision points We’re all really good at procrastination — like, really good. But there is a solution. Deadlines help drive action. They help us focus and avoid getting distracted by non-essential tasks. One easy hack: ensure meetings focus on making a decision. The meeting will become the deadline for teams to prepare a presentation and input.
  5. Group your meetings into blocks
    Put meetings back to back instead of scattered throughout the day. Research says it will make you more productive because your in-between blocks of time feel less scarce. This rule applies when in the office or not, but is especially important for work-from-home life since distractions may be higher.

As the nature of work changes in the coming months, we should understand how to optimize work conditions. Work is something that ties us to other people in such an intricate way that we have no choice (or think we have no choice) but to achieve our goals. Work is just an elaborate accountability system. It’s a proven system that has been shown to motivate us across domains and across cultures.

In times of Corona (but also for your personal goals in life!), there is very simple advice one should consider — don’t go it alone.

Or, if that’s too hard, just act like someone is always watching you.

Hacking Behavior


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