Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Distributed work

Homework: How is working from home affecting your productivity?

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Published on May 19, 2020

Illustration by Justin Tran

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Talking about productivity during a pandemic feels a bit like critiquing the musicians who played for passengers on the Titanic as they ran for the lifeboats. You’ve got enough to worry about without stressing about your output, especially if you’re an essential worker.

If you’re lucky enough to to work from home, just getting  through the day can feel like an accomplishment. And having a job to do right now can give you a sense of purpose. But when people are in survival mode, who’s really focusing on how much they’re getting done? 

Judging from recent surveys, it depends who you ask. Since a large part of the workforce began working from home, there’s been debate about how it will impact productivity. 

“When it comes to writing a plan, crafting a story, or quality 1:1 conversations, I find the peace and focus of my home office is the best place to be.”—Micha Sprinz

According to YouGov, 54% think working from home is improving their productivity thanks to fewer meetings, less commuting, and an absence of distracting co-workers. Employees at the Social Security Administration say telework helps them work at a faster pace

On the other hand, the co-author of the famous 2015 study showing the positive impact of working of home thinks the current WFH situation could be a “productivity disaster” because we’re “working alongside our kids, in unsuitable spaces, with no choice, and no in-office days.”

In part three of our Homework series, we hear from the workers themselves to find out if they’re feeling more—or less—effective on the job since they began working from home. Here are 10 takeaways from Dropbox workers in Ireland, France, Germany, Israel, Australia and the US after their first two months as a fully distributed workforce.

More flexibility and time to focus

“As someone who worked from home 2 or 3 days a week even before the onset of the pandemic in various companies and roles for the past 15 years, I have long been an advocate for the productivity of remote working,” says Micha Sprinz, European Communications Manager at Dropbox. “When it comes to writing a plan, crafting a story, or quality 1:1 conversations, I find the peace and focus of my home office is the best place to be.”

“And as an employee based outside of company headquarters and whose remit covers several geographies, I am used to dealing with international colleagues, partners, and customers through a technological interface. I will admit, however, all virtual interactions work best when the relationships have already been founded by in-person meetings.”

“Working from home also allows flexibility in the structure of your day,” says Sprinz. “I always start my day with a run, then sit down with a coffee to focus on the biggest piece of work for the day while I am fresh and the adrenaline is still pumping before taking a shower and then starting on meetings and more functional tasks.”

“Working from home also gives you the opportunity to decide when not to work because there may be other priorities. During COVID, with my two children at home, I have been able to block time in my day to help with school work, make films, bake cakes, paint furniture or WarHammer sets or, quite simply, when the sun comes out, seize the opportunity to get outside and breathe and play.”

Staying aligned by shifting to new channels

Working from home has definitely increased my productivity,” says Edouard Manche, Enterprise Account Executive for Dropbox and HelloSign for Education. “I work from the Paris office, and I realise that the commute takes me almost one hour of my day and is quite exhausting—Paris is a busy city! Having this hour included in my work day allows me to stay focused, as well as avoiding interactions with my colleagues: the balance between social life at work and focus has shifted to the latter.”

Keeping everyone aligned does not always require recurring meetings. We use Slack channels or phone calls to keep things moving.”—Edouard Manche

As a salesperson, I am accountable on a revenue target, and I set myself goals and actions to (over)achieve it,” Manche says. “This requires cross-functional effort, for example with my colleagues working in indirect sales (channel), marketing, or pre-sales (solutions architects). Keeping everyone aligned does not always require recurring meetings. We avoid these at the maximum, and use Slack channels, or just direct phone calls to keep things moving.”

Balancing childcare and job responsibilities

Jonathan Seroussi, Engineering Manager and Site Lead at our Dropbox office in Tel Aviv, Israel says working from home didn’t have a significant influence on his or his team's productivity when they started on March 8. 

“Everything changed for me and many others when shelter in place was announced and schools were closed, starting on March 15th,” he says. “Me and my wife have 4-and-a-half-year-old twins. Ever since this situation started we split our days to 6 hours shifts, alternating between work and taking care of the kids as both of us are working full time. Narrowing down the amount of time I can spend on work has helped me focus on the top priorities.”

“As it became apparent that we will be in this situation for at least a couple of months, I took my list of tasks and priorities and cut them by half,” Seroussi says. “I took off a lot of the strategic initiatives and kept only the must have ones. I also cut some of my meetings and 1:1s, though I tried to keep as many of those as I could.”

“This is probably the worst hit on my productivity. As a manager, I rely on my ability to meet with people and connect. The lack of reading body language and spending enough time outside of Zoom is definitely something that's increasing my anxiety and hitting my productivity as I'm constantly thinking about my team.”

“Me and my wife have 4-and-a-half-year-old twins. Everything changed for me and many others when shelter in place was announced and schools were closed."—Jonathan Seroussi

“On the team level, projects that were in execution mode saw an uptake in productivity,” says Seroussi. “Milestones were not affected. Projects in the research or startup phase have been slower to get going, mostly because teams were unable to coordinate enough meetings. This is mainly due to scheduling constraints of working parents.”

"I have a young daughter at home,” says Cappi Williamson, Head of EMEA Communications at Dropbox, “So I've found myself planning out my days in advance much more thoughtfully than I might have when I had—what seems like now—a luxurious amount of time in the work day. I ask myself who I need to meet with, how I will balance childcare responsibilities with my husband, and what the top priorities are for each day and week. This has helped me get rid of some of the excess and utilise my time better. It isn't always smooth sailing, but I'm making it work.”

Coordinating with other time zones is easier

“I can say that multiple team members have testified that working with folks in the Bay Area is actually better this way,” says Seroussi. “Scheduling meetings earlier in the evening for us is easier when SF people don't need to commute. Team members are saying that the fact that this situation is so global helps them bond in a unique way that was less possible before. Sort of shelter-in-place camaraderie.”

“Being on the West Coast, coordinating meetings with other time zones has become slightly easier,” says McKenna Haniger, Analyst Relations at Dropbox. “Morning hours that were traditionally blocked for commuting are freed up now, providing a few more openings to meet with folks on the East Coast and in Europe.”

“One advantage is that I don’t need to check where to squeeze in my commute between my my last EMEA call and a catch up with a colleague from SF,” adds Linus Haferkemper, Head of Customer Success for Europe’s DACH and Nordics regions. 

Regional offices seem less “remote”

“Being a fully distributed team has actually been a great equalizer for those of us in regional or remote offices,” says Le Tran, Head of Communications for Asia Pacific & Japan. “Whereas before, it was regional teams that would dial into HQ or the ‘mothership’, that’s now the case for everyone. We’re all distributed and the centre of gravity has been disbanded, so it’s been a good leveller.”

Becoming more accommodating 

Haferkemper says working from home has improved his ability to manage his time for two reasons.“One: I don’t commute anymore. The way I use most mornings is that I go for a walk with my wife. I spend so much more time with my wife. We talk more, our conversations go deeper and our marriage gets better and stronger. Two: People are more accommodating. Compared to friends that cannot work from home for various reasons or even lost their jobs, I am extremely proud and thankful to be working for a company like Dropbox, that is led by such thoughtful leaders that are exactly what I am: A human being.”

“Morning hours that were traditionally blocked for commuting are freed up now, providing a few more openings to meet with folks on the East Coast and in Europe.”—McKenna Haniger

“I was on a virtual EMEA fireside chat with Olivia [Nottebohm, Chief Operating Officer at Dropbox] and just like any one of us, she has the same duties: Cooking, washing, mow the lawn,” he says. “I think there is way more understanding these days that opening hours are limited, that there are more important things in life than sitting in a meeting.”

“I have many customer video conferences and they are all in the same boat. I’ve seen so many kids coming in and out in VCs. I try to stop the conversation there, because normally people go on mute, tell their kids to go away and they are embarrassed. So a quick remark (such as) ‘John, please go, look after her, cook that tea, make that sandwich.’ All of that is more important than us having a conversation about domain verification. I hope the improvements in humanity and business relationships will last.”

Appreciating the comforts of home

“I feel my productivity has definitely gone up in the first few weeks of WFH. I was used to it from my previous job,” says Haferkemper. “I also have to say that I’m better equipped at home than in our office—height adjustable desk, great chair. What a perk. I also want to be mindful that not everyone has a separate room at home for that desk and so on, so I totally get that colleagues on my team cannot wait to get back to the office and so on.”

Haferkemper says working from home hasn’t impaired his ability to get things done. “This might also be due to the fact that even in the small Hamburg office we were relying a lot on people from other offices,” he explains. “So I never really could walk up my boss’s desk or that co-worker from the other team that I work with so much. 75 Slack messages or 25 minutes VC has been and is still the way to go for me.”

Adjusting to monotony

“I think the hardest thing about confinement, as they call it in France, has been the monotony,” says Sprinz. “Remote working is something I am very used to and value highly and my family are obviously hugely important to me but variety is indeed the spice of life - the inability to punctuate the balance of home and work life with the odd live rock concert or singing with my choir or a nice supper on a bistro terrace with a friend for example, has been the toughest part of lockdown.”

“During this time, I've felt more effective, but less creative."—Natalie Mason

“I found it hard at first—and some days I still do—adjusting to a monotonous way of working, communicating, collaborating via just the one digital screen,” says Tran. “I missed being able to break up the work day and mix up my cognitive bearings with in-person 1:1s, casual chats by the coffee queue, office banter, quiet time for deep work.”

“I’ve settled into WFH now and I appreciate the calmness of my mornings. Instead of getting ready for work and running for the bus, I now take my time to make coffee, do yoga or just have a moment to myself before logging on. It’s nice to slowly ease into the day.”

Feeling more effective, but less creative

“My routine has changed so much since shelter-in-place took effect in San Francisco,” says Natalie Mason from our Product Communications team at Dropbox. “ I'm a part-time fitness instructor, so my daily 6am sweat sessions, followed by commuting, and settling into the day at my desk have all been thrown off.”

“During this time, I've felt more effective, but less creative,” says Mason. “I've been very task-oriented because I want to make sure I'm not letting my team down, but without face-to-face communication, it can feel like going through the motions, rather than working together to get to the best possible outcome.”

Finding new ways to get in the zone

“Working from home, I don't have the environmental cues I'm used to at the office, and I've realized how much they impact my work day,” says Haniger. “Typically, meetings and presentations take place in conference rooms. I catch up with coworkers over lunch. I read through reports in a quiet area, and do focused work from my desk. Everything now happens from the same place in my house. It takes some extra effort to adjust to different tasks when I can't rely on a change of scenery to get in the zone.”

This is part three of our Homework series, which looks at our how our team is adjusting to life as a fully distributed workforce.

Read part 1: How behaviors and habits change in a fully distributed workforce

Read part 2: How distributed teams are setting boundaries between home and office