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Supporting the Productivity and Wellbeing of Remote Workers: Lessons from COVID-19

Transcription of interview with Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater, professor of management in the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston (USA).

Research and Development Department

Mariana Guerra, Project Coordinator

Priyanka Seevaparsaid, Research and Development Coordinator

Renzo Vidaurre, Research and Development Intern

(February 8th, 2023)

00:09 Mariana Guerra: We are a small IT company. We are in this business to craft

and implement technology that will make our clients workdays easier, better, and

more enjoyable. And our vision is to provide micro and small organizations with

cutting edge technology, world, class guidance, and science-based strategies. So

well, again, the purpose of this interview is to gather information, gain valuable

knowledge, and hopefully create new knowledge on supporting the productivity

of virtual teams. We can begin with the first question and the first question I've

got for you is, what have you identified to be the main or biggest challenges to

retain employees in a remote setting?

01:00 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: Okay. Before we jump into this, can I just ask a

couple of questions?

01:03 Mariana Guerra: Yes, absolutely.

01:00 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: Okay. So are you, is your team located all over the

world, or are you in one central location? Where geographically are you?

01:16 Mariana Guerra: Yes, the main office is set in New York. But we have people

from all over the world. We have people from Peru, South Africa, and France as

well. I am from Peru and for example, Priyanka she's from South Africa.

01:35 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: And how many people work in your organization?

01:37 Mariana Guerra: Right now we are 11, so we are very small.

01:43 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: And you just started this business, is that true?

01:47 Mariana Guerra: Yes. We just started in 2022.

01:56 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: So you're basically a consulting company that's

trying to help other IT companies retain talent when they work virtually, is that

basically your goal? Do any of your clients have teams that have onsite and

remote, or is it all remote?

02:42 Mariana Guerra: We don't have clients yet, we have just started in the

market. So first we are doing some research before we enter the market.

02:57 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: Okay. So you have the paper that I, that we wrote

supporting the productivity and wellbeing of remote workers, correct?

02:48 Mariana Guerra: Yes.

02:57 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: Okay. And at the end of that paper are a number

of recommendations that came from our first study. Do you want me to go over

those or do you have them and it's a waste of time to go over them?

03:27 Mariana Guerra: We were expecting more for you to give us your opinion,

like the personal one, based on information you have researched.

03:40 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: So the biggest issue that we have discovered,

well, there are a number of them. The one issue is the employees want flexibility.

They don't want to be penned in as to when and where they do their work. So if

they're remote, they want to be able to do work. If they're a morning person and

they want to get up at 6:00 AM and work until 3:00, they want to do that. If they

have small children at home and they want to work during their nap and after

they go to bed, they want to be able to do that. So a lot of it is about flexibility and

choice. And the other issue, and this is, you know, some of this is different now

because when we started studying remote work, Covid had restricted people's

interactions drastically, so they didn't have the option to go into work. When Covid

hit my university, everything went online. We did not have any face-to-face classes

for months, which is a different environment than we're experiencing now, where

companies have people that have gone back to the workplace. They have

employees that are working partly remote and partly in the workplace, they have

employees that are continuing to work in completely remote, so we've gone from

a situation where you had no choice whether you worked remote or not, you had

to work remote. Like me, they told me I had to teach online and now to a situation

where people, some people have some choice. And some workplaces are

demanding that their employees come back to the workplace and some

workplaces are allowing them to do a combo. Our experience is that I would say

most employees want to have some remote work. They got used to not having the

challenges of commuting and getting up every morning at a certain time and

doing all of your prep to get to the office. They got used to having the flexibility to

sit at their computer at the breakfast table, and they don't want to give all of that

up. They don't want to go back to a 40 or 45 hour week. You know, a 40 minute

commute each way. So, the employers that are insisting that they come back to

the workplace are seeing employees leave. Another thing to consider is that, and

this again it goes back to Covid. When we were all sent home, employees felt like

their work was intruding on their home life because they had to go lock

themselves in their office and the kids weren't in school and it was hard to

separate what was work from what was home. I think we've, as employees, we’ve

adjusted to that somewhat, but still one of the challenges is helping your

employees maintain their work-life balance. Because once you can work remotely,

that means you can work any time of the day or night, any day of the week. And

it's a challenge for employers to allow their employees not to do that. So you want

to allow them some flexibility, but you also want to give them the opportunity to

have boundaries. So for example, no one is sending emails after 6:00 at night. My

daughter works remotely. These are anecdotes, but they support the story. My

daughter works remotely and her previous boss was sending her emails at 8:30 at

night. While she has three small children and she's trying to. And she’s trying to

get, you know, life in order. She doesn't want to be getting emails from her boss at

8:30 at night. Another issue is that some of the employers have given up their

workspaces, so they've sent everybody home. They're completely remote and they

have no workspaces. So if my daughter needs to meet with her team, she has to

do it at her home or at a public place like a restaurant because they have no office

to go to. So again, it's about this balance of all 100% remote with no workspace is

hard. And demanding that employees go back to work in the workplace is not

what they want to be doing. Another thing we learned, and this sort of fits with

Sarah's experience, is that the people who were most engaged with their teams in

the workplace had suffered the most when they were sent to go remote because

they lost that supportive network. So, our issue is if you're going to send your

employees to be remote as an employer, you need to be thinking about how

you're still going to keep that team engaged. And Zoom is great, I do a lot of it, but

it's not the same as being together face-to-face and Sarah told me, just the other

day, she's a supervisor. She supervises school social workers that work with kids in

the schools, and she's their supervisor and she said; it's really important when we

all get together. She said, “I didn't realize how important it is for us to be together

as a team.” Another issue with virtual teams, and this research, this has to do with

stuff I did a long time ago is if you create a virtual team, it's really important if it's at

all possible, to get them together face-to-face, early on in the development of that

team because it allows them a better opportunity to develop trust and to learn

each other's strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes that's not possible. If you've

got a virtual team that's spread out across the world, you're not going to be able to

get them together. But you may create some team building exercises that can be

done remotely or some fun things that they can do remotely. Because I teach

online, I have an introductory Zoom meeting for all of the students at the

beginning of the semester. And I schedule a number of them because I have too

many students to put them all in one Zoom and I ask them what's unique about

you and what do you do for fun? So there's some humanness to their interaction

as opposed to, “I'm an MBA student and I'm graduating in May, and I work at

Hewlett Packard and that's me.” I mean, we want to have, you know, we want

there to be some kind of human component to who these people are. So flexibility,

choice, integration, integrating your life and your work so that the work isn't

intruding on the family and the family isn't intruding on the work and how best to

do that. Interestingly, we did not find that families that had children experienced

more conflict from work and life than those who didn't have children, which was

kind of interesting. We also looked at things that weren't directly related to remote

work, but they were related to work in general. So, we asked them about their

resources to do their job, thinking that you might have fewer resources in your

home. You know, at home you don't have a big copy machine, you don’t have your

large desktop, they didn't send you home with all that, so we asked about

resources and we asked about constraints and both resources and constraints

were very related to how engaged they were in their jobs and their turnover

intentions. So, some of the constraints are, and I can send you this if you care, but

equipment and they had poor equipment or supplies, company rules and

procedures that didn't allow them to do their work the way they needed to, other

employees interfering as their supervisor, inadequate training, interruptions, they

didn’t have all the information they needed, conflicting job demands, inadequate

help and incorrect instructions, so those were the constraints that caused them to

want to leave. You know, ‘I have a lousy supervisor, I don't get along with my

coworkers, I don't get the help I need’, those increased turnover intentions. The

resources that decreased turnover intention were having the physical resources

such as space and equipment to do their job, having the time they need to do

their job, having the support of their supervisor, having the support of their

coworkers. Just overall believing that they had the resources they needed to do

their job. And for some folks going remote and, many of us went remote like

tomorrow, you know, they didn't say, okay, you've got a month to get your home

office put up. It was, as of Monday, the university's closing, so I fortunately had

been already teaching remotely. So, it wasn't a big adjustment for me, but for

many of my colleagues, it was a huge adjustment to say, you have to immediately

convert what was a standup face-to-face class into an online class and it's a big


15:12 Mariana Guerra: Yes. I completely understand. Sometimes it happens to me.

I don't have an office in my house, so my office is inside my bedroom and it's hard

for me. I finish working and, you know, I lay down in my bed for, I don't know, a

couple of hours, and then I wake up, I see my desk and I see my laptop, and it's

like, I forgot to do this, oh, I have to answer this email. So, it’s really hard to separate

those spaces when you don’t have a specific space. It’s not the same going to an

office. And also, well, for example, in our case, we have people from different parts

of the world and it's hard to get, you know, like a real human connection with all

our team members. But what we do is that, well, here in Lima, Peru, we have like 7

members, so we always meet once a week. We do happy hours with those and

with the ones that are in another country, we do happy virtual hours, but

sometimes it's difficult too because some of them are in South Africa, in France, so

not everybody can join.

16:46 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: The time zones are huge. I have students in my

class, they are actually living in India or other parts of the world because they're

taking this class online so it doesn't matter where they are and they're joining a

Zoom meeting at 11:00 PM, so the time zones can be a real, a real critical issue. One

of the other things that I have seen is companies not respecting their employee's

personal time or personal life. So for example, my daughter's boss sends her

emails at 8:30 PM expecting an answer, scheduling meetings on Saturday. I mean,

who does that? I need to be at my kids soccer practice or whatever. And I think

employers get very cavalier, particularly if they're the workaholic type who works

seven days a week. That if I'm working on Saturday, you should be working on

Saturday too. And Sarah has a side job where she does clinical practice and most

of these folks are like her where they have regular jobs. So, that boss scheduled a

meeting for Saturday, there needs to be some limits.

18:22 Mariana Guerra: Yeah. Well, here, we work Monday to Thursday from 8:00

AM until 3:00 PM, so we have a very flexible schedule and we don't get annoyed by

our boss after those hours unless it's something very, very urgent but it hasn’t ever

happened. Now we can go with the next quick question, what have you identified

to be the main solutions to retain employees in a remote setting?

18:57 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: Well, I mentioned most of them already. Having

flexibility and choice in where and when you do the work, which tends to be hard

for some supervisors because they feel like you may be taking advantage, and one

of the things that we try to reinforce is don't worry about where or when the work

is getting done if the work is getting done, here's what you need to accomplish

and I don't care when or where it gets accomplished. The example, and this isn't a

good example for remote work, but it's a good example for getting the work done,

UPS drivers, United Postal Service who have to deliver packages all over and they

drive big brown trucks. Okay? I don't know how familiar you are with us but

they're delivery, they're like Amazon only. It's the postal service. Their drivers get a

load in the morning, here are all the packages you have to deliver. When you're

done, you're done for the day. So if you want a mosey up to the door and drop the

package and it takes you nine hours to fill your day, you can do it in nine hours or

you can do it in six hours if you want to get, you know, deliver the packages really

quickly. So you'll see these drivers hopping out of their trucks, which have no doors

on them. They hop out of their trucks and they run to the door and drop the

package because when they're done with their deliveries, they're done. So they

have the flexibility to do their job whenever they want. My students, my classes are

asynchronous, they can do their work anytime of the day or night. They have a

week to get their assignments in. They're all due at 11:59 PM on Friday. And I would

say 10%, more than that. 20% are submitting their assignments after 11:00 PM On

Friday, when they've had since Saturday morning to do it. So, you know it doesn't

matter to me when they do it, but they really like having the flexibility to do it on

their own time. We talked about resources, we've talked about constraints. We've

talked about preventing intrusion. And what we've discovered is employees are

willing to work more hours if they can control when they do them. So remote

workers, if they can decide that they're going to get out of bed at 09:30 and send

an email, if that's their choice. They're willing to get out of bed at 09:30 and send

an email if their boss is sending them an email at 08:30 We're expecting a

response. That's not their control, and that doesn't make them happy. So I guess

that's pretty much all I have to say for that one.

22:26 Mariana Guerra: Yeah. I think sometimes, supervisors want to know, like,

where are you working? What are you doing exactly? Like, I live near the beach. So

sometimes I just go to the beach and start working from there. And it doesn't

mean I'm not working. I'm working but at the same time I'm relaxing because I

have the ocean view and I can focus better than being, you know, like inside my

bedroom in four walls, just like typing and typing and typing.

22:55 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: Sure, sure. And that flexibility in that choice

makes you more productive. And let me just tell you one quick story. I used to

have a job a long, long time ago before I was a faculty member. I had a job

where we were supposed to be in the office from 07:30 to 4:00. We were doing

research, personnel research, you know, what makes people more effective and

about leadership, etc. And there were days where I really didn't have anything I

needed to do. But I had to sit at that office until 4:30. And it was torture. You know,

it was absolute torture because there were so many other things I could have

been doing. And then another day, maybe I needed to work on Saturday. But no,

boom 07:30, boom 4:30, boom, sit at that desk and have nothing to do. And, you

know, I'm an old person, the younger generation is even more fed up with ‘expect

me to be somewhere and have nothing to do’. They're just not going to put up

with it. They're going to leave.

24:08 Mariana Guerra: Yeah, I'm laughing because that happened to me. During

the pandemic, I was working in an office like in a diving school. And I was working

in sales. So, I had to go to the office from Tuesday until Sunday, and I had to sit

down until 7:00 PM just waiting for someone to, you know, just go there and ask if

they're interested. And sometimes it happens that it's 1:00 PM and I have nothing

to do. I just want to go home. I could be doing anything more productive, like

reading a book or just listening to music or just, you know, relaxing. But no, I have

to be here and just wait and wait and wait until the hour comes. And it feels like

Time goes so slowly?

25:04 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: You just go like this all the time. Oh, how much

longer? How much longer? How much longer? Yes. Yes. So those, you know, the

young this young generation is going to be very dissatisfied and disengaged if

they're in a situation like that or like mine.

25:20 Mariana Guerra: Yeah, I can imagine and the next question is, what have

you perceived to be the main triggers of organizational turn over in a remote


25:32 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: It's all the things we've already talked about that

choice and flexibility. Those that have companies will not let them work remotely

at all. Now, there are some jobs like if you're delivering packages, you can't do it

remotely. But there are other jobs where you can do part of it remotely and the

company just says you're not going to, we're not going to allow it. You're going to

be in the office because I need to see you here and you know, employers have all

sorts of reasons that are not backed up with a lot of science. Most of them you

know, they want control. And so even though you could do this job from your

home, I think it's important for you to be here and sometimes they set like

mandatory hours that everyone must be in the office Tuesday, Wednesday and

Thursday from you know, 10:00 to 2:00, you know, it's not horrible, but is it

necessary is my question or is it just your, you know, this is about the employer

and not about the what's really necessary. Another thing that we've learned is

emotional exhaustion, which is like burnout and ‘God, I hate this. I can't do this job

anymore’. That doesn't have anything to do with where you work. It has to do with

how many total hours you're working. So when you know, my grandson had a job. I

was just talking to him about this the other day. He had a job where his boss was

bidding on contracts, and she was under bidding the work in order to get the

contract. And so she was bidding a job that was going to take 20 hours and she

was bidding it for 10 and then expecting her employees to get them done in 10

which was impossible. So, they were constantly overworked and constantly feeling

pressured. And you know, he lasted three weeks. He said this is an unacceptable

job environment. You know, she wanted to get the contracts and then she just

told the employees well, I don't care, you're just going to have to figure out how to

get it done, even though it was impossible.

28:03 Mariana Guerra: Yes, sometimes it happens that supervisors ask for things

that are impossible. They’re like, ‘no, I don't need it right now.’ It's like, ‘I can't.’ ‘No,

you have to,’ and you have to figure out how to do it because if not, they are going

to fire me, I'm not going to have a job and we're not going to have money and it's

yeah, it's so stressful. Okay, and the last question we’ve got is, what

are your suggestions for people who wish to continue with your research on

supporting the productivity and well being of remote workers?

28:42 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: Oh, gee. That's a question you didn't send me, I

haven't thought about that. But we are following up on our work right now about

giving people choice and the question of whether the number of remote hours

matches the number of remote hours they want. So, in some cases, they have

more remote hours than they want which we call ‘surplus’ and in other cases, they

have fewer remote hours, which we call ‘deficit’ and deficit remote hours is a

problem. Surplus remote hours is not, so even if they're working more remote

hours than they say they want to, let's say you know how many hours you want to

work remotely? I want to work 20 hours a week remotely, how many are you

working? 25. That's not a problem. But I want to work 20 hours remotely, and I'm

only allowed to work 10, that's a problem. So, this issue of surplus and deficit is

something that we're looking into. We're also looking more into how choice plays

into it and what are the dynamics that go into how people choose what they

choose. You know, and some of those things. So I really think that, well, everything

tells us all of the New York Times articles tell us that remote work is here to stay.

So, for jobs that were not ever being done remotely before they're being done, at

least partially remotely now and that's not going to change because it's better for

the environment, it's better for people's health. It's better for everything, and it's

not going to go away. The context, however, has changed, because now it's

optional. When we were in Covid. It wasn't optional. You had to go home, you had

to work remotely, you had to figure it out. Now, companies are going to have to

balance, you know, am I going to force all my workers to work remotely? And if I

do, what is the impact of that? I'm just going to close up my building. You know,

I'm going to get rid of all the real estate and give everybody a laptop and tell them

to work from anywhere they want. What are the implications of that? And,

alternatively, what are the implications of employers saying, okay, we're all coming

back to work now. I don't know who it was, was it Google? I don’t know, it was one

of the big companies that said, ‘okay, everybody this remote stuff, we're all done

with it. Get back to the office.’ And how's that going to impact people and

turnover and engagement? So, it's not just about, you know, turnover is important.

But engagement is more important, because the last thing I want is our

employees that are staying and don't want to be there and aren't engaged in the

work. You know, I would much rather you leave than stay and be disengaged. So,

you know, I think it's, it's more of a look at how well they're doing in their job, how

much they're enjoying their job, as opposed to just whether or not they're leaving.

30:36 Mariana Guerra: Yes, I agree with you. I think nowadays, people are more

conscious of how other people are feeling at work and how to make them stay.

But you know, like, emotionally, like giving support. For example, some companies

have a psychologist in the company and they schedule meetings more with the

psychologist so the employee can talk with her or him and to say, how are they

feeling with the workload and with the teammates and etc.

33:06 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: Yeah, that's interesting. One of the new perks is

counseling, right? Who would have thought?

33:10 Mariana Guerra: Yeah. Well, that will be all. Thank you so much for your time.

It's been a pleasure to talk with you. It was very interesting, with a lot of

information. I'm sure we got new information that we probably didn't know. And

again, I apologize for the issues we had before but finally we could get this


33:29 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: They were on both ends, they were on my end,

too. I couldn't do the Google teams. And then I didn't realize like, got it on my list

of things to do. How can I schedule a Zoom meeting if I can only schedule it

among the people in my university, that doesn't make any sense? Yeah. So yeah.

Okay, well, it was a pleasure Marianna, say hello to the rest of your team and I wish

you the best with your startup adventure.

33:54 Mariana Guerra: Thank you so much. I wish you the best too and have a

great day.

33:57 Ph.D. Leanne E. Atwater: Okay, bye bye.

—End of Interview—


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