A Tale of Two Cities: What We've Learned About WFH During the Pandemic (Las Vegas 2020)

Dr. Nicole Forsgren is the VP of Research & Strategy at GitHub. She is author of the Shingo Publication Award-winning book Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps, and is best known for her work measuring the technology process and as the lead investigator on the largest DevOps studies to date. She has been an entrepreneur (with an exit to Google), professor, sysadmin, and performance engineer. Nicole’s work has been published in several peer-reviewed journals. Nicole earned her PhD in Management Information Systems from the University of Arizona, and is a Research Affiliate at Clemson University and Florida International University.


Dr. Nicole Forsgren

VP Research & Strategy, GitHub



Thank you so much, Dr. Smith, that panel that you mentioned will be at 11, 10:00 AM Pacific time today. And holy cow, if you want a sense of the talent that will be entering the workforce soon and hear how they discuss the importance of inclusion with leaders from this community, you won't want to miss it. Okay. The next speaker almost needs no introduction because she is so central to the DevOps movement. I've had the privilege of working with Dr. Nicole Forsgren as well as with just humble on the state of DevOps research since 2013, that is of course the cross population study that spanned over 35,000 respondents over six years, which was the basis of the Shingo publication award winning book accelerate, which has been mentioned so many times in presentations at this conference. Nicole is now VP of research and strategy at GitHub. And I am so delighted that she is presenting a mini lecture on her recent research that is relevant to every technology leader today, which is how COVID-19 and working from home is impacting productivity, organizational, and employee health. She will give advice for leaders and where we go from here. We all know that there will be a new normal, and it won't likely look like the old normal, and she has some pretty stunning data on what that new normal maybe look like. Here's Dr. Forssmann.


Hi everyone. I'm Nicole Forsgren. And I'll be talking today about what we've learned about working from home and how it really is a tale of two cities. I am VP of research and strategy at get hub. I like to drink diet Coke, and I'd like to ask questions. So here's what we'll be talking about today. Um, Shane flan wrote this great while I post and he opens it with this Charles Dickens novel starts with, it was the best of times. It was the worst of times adopting that to what we're going through today. Leading our own engineering teams could probably be summarized pretty similarly. We're doing very well. We're barely hanging in there. Some people are loving work from home. Some people are hating work from home, so who's right, who's wrong. How do we make sense of it? And as I'd like to know, what's the data, tell us, because remember we, aren't just working from home, we're working from home through a pandemic and at least in the us in full of other crises.


So while there isn't a perfect examination of life and working from home, we do have some interesting data points. We can look out through this natural experiment. So today this is what I'll be talking about, what the data shows about doing work. Um, is this better or is it worse? I'll also take a look at what we know about working from home before pandemic. I'll also talk a bit about resilience and burnout and then how we can make tech and work sustainable and then preparing for the future. So let's dive into it. First of all, I want to mention this is some of the primary research that I'll be talking about today. So I'll be chatting about some of the research that I've done at get hub. This is kind of interesting because it's global data. So shout out to the spotlight team on this.


Um, I'll also be doing some deep dives into single company data. So some of this has shown up on the Microsoft 365 blog. Um, and some of this research has also been done by the MSR Microsoft research St team. Now, why did I bother mentioning that? I do want to do kind of like a quick sidebar to mention why this is particularly interesting, first of all, it's because they get up data is global. So we're talking about over 50 million developer data. So patterns that we see there were really interesting. Um, the data from the Microsoft research gives us interesting data on a deep dive into one company. So where we see overlaps, I think there's a pretty good idea of what's going to be holding. So then we also, it gives us a good kind of insights into the what, understanding the, what understanding what's probably broadly applicable into our own teams and our own organization, our own organizations.


And then we can have a better understanding of the why. And then, uh, I also want to mention quickly, uh, there will be an appendix at the back of this deck, so you can all dive into the details yourself. Here's what some of the data shows us. First of all, getting work done. We see consistent year over year growth into developer activity, data, things like pushes, uh, poll requests, commenting on issues, commenting on poll requests. I don't want to say that there's no observed COVID effect, but that in itself is pretty interesting because the fact that you have consistent year over year growth through a pandemic is pretty interesting. Now this data, uh, has been pulled through the first three months of the year. We're updating this analysis. Now it looks kind of, kind of interesting. Now Microsoft found something pretty similar. They've run this analysis through may and they see consistent year over year growth as well, particularly here, they were looking at number of poll requests completed.


Now the fact that this growth is pretty consistent and pretty typical every year shows us kind of a lot, right? So we see consistent growth through pandemic. Now, what else do we see? I wanted to look at things like timing of work by timing of work. Like when are we doing this work are our days getting longer. And here we noticed that we see a big jump starting and about March. This right here is an examination of us Pacific time zone. We did a similar analysis on the Eastern time zone, and we see that in March days start getting longer. Now this was a rough approximation of what this looks like. So we look at the difference between your first push of the day and your last push of the day, whatever your primary branches. Um, now we also wanted to see, okay, but are you just spreading the same amount of workout?


Because now we're at home, we have probably additional responsibilities to handle all like childcare turns out volume of work also increased. Again, this is a rough approximation as well. You have pushes, but it's an indication that we're not just spreading our workout. We're doing more of it. Now, interestingly enough, this echoes much of what previous work from home research found is that work expands to fill the space. I'm guessing that many of us are not even saying, yeah, I feel this right. I'm at home. And maybe I don't have to commute anymore, but that just means I work more. Now, Microsoft research found something similar. This came from the office engineering team and they found that people are starting to work earlier. They're working later, they're working through lunch. So the dip in lunch no longer happens. And even the kind of afternoon mole no longer happens.


So people are just working more. Now, something else we wondered was what the data says about collaboration. So here we see that collaboration times got faster. We're reviewing PRS faster, um, elsewhere in, uh, office. They saw the project, turnaround times are getting faster. It could be that we're sitting around our computers. And so we're more available to be doing reviews, which could be interesting. Could be great. Something else that I think is really exciting is that we see open source project creation growing up to almost 30%. Why do I think this is exciting? I think it's great because so many of us are at home. We have shelter in place orders. Computers are also creative outlets. It's an opportunity to make. So when we're done at the end of the day, maybe we take a lap around the house or take a lap around the neighborhood.


We can come back, we can take our work hat off. We can put our creative or educational hat on and we can create. And same platform that has been for work can now be for fun. It can now be for exploration. And we've seen that growth happen a lot. I will also note that we see similar reciprocal patterns on weekends and holidays where work activity really goes down and open source activity picks up. So I think that's one bright spot here. So quick take could be yay. Everything's great. People are resilient. We can go about our days. Productivity is up, we're doing more. This is amazing. And I'm sure many companies are taking a look at some of their data. And some of their stats are hearing this message and saying, this is great. Nobody's to come back to the office, no one needs to go back to work, right?


This is dope. We're done here, but there's more work than just what our systems can tell us. And if we were sitting in an auditorium right now, I would imagine a laugh track because I've been saying this for many years, right? There are many dimensions and many important, important lenses through which we want to view work, and there may be missing pieces to the story. So let's dig a bit deeper. How has productivity changed compared to working in an office? And, you know, it's really interesting. This is where we see that productivity really is individual. Um, you know, for about two thirds of people, they're really reporting through many different methods through interviews, through so many different things. They're saying that their productivity has either not changed at all or it's improved, but there's a not insignificant portion of people about a third saying that it's been really hard and their productivity has suffered, right?


So we really need to remember, again, productivity is individual. People are affected in different ways, depending on their work styles, depending on their circumstances. And depending on the benefits that they may see. So let's dive into it. Let's see what that looks like. Now. Here's the good about work from home. There are several things here that kind of surfaced out of a bunch of this research. This comes out of the St team. Now for some people working from home in this shift to work from home has given them exactly what they need. Now. This is particularly true for neuro-diverse engineers and software developers, like some who have ADHD or dyslexia. Now they can set up their environment just how they want it, or just how they need it without disruptions or without judgment. For example, some people need distractions. They need a lot going on because it actually helps them focus.


But at work, you either can't do that because you don't have control over your environment. Or if you have a lot of things happening on your screen, they're worried about being judged. Well, now they can do it. And now this has given everyone an opportunity, particularly these people, without having to disclose a condition or worried, or being worried about disclosing this condition, right? Because now everyone is working from home. And so now many people have an opportunity to manage their day, or we can think about it another way. Many people are being given an opportunity to manage their energy in a way that makes them feel better and feel more productive. So many places are also allowing people to manage their day and manage the time flexibly. Maybe that means that you take two hours off in the middle of the day to take a nap or to work out or to do something better.


And then you work later in the evenings. Now this works better for them. They're thriving. And we're hearing that they've always preferred it and they're hoping they never have to go back to an office. So when we dive into this, we see there are many of these things that have a significant impact on productivity. These themes carry through. It really is important. And a few of these have strong impacts on productivity, right? So we can keep these in unwind, right? What is working for you? What is working for your team? How can we maybe key in on these now? What are developers saying about the challenges with working from home? Right. Because remember I said, productivity is personal. It doesn't work for everyone. We do see that some people are really struggling. We hear about feelings of isolation, difficulty connecting with people, difficulty connecting with teams as hard meetings are just different.


When they're on a screen, conferences are different. When they're on a screen years ago, there was a research into how children's brains engaged differently based on if they were watching a puppet show on a screen or a puppet show in person, different parts of their brains lit up. And we're seeing much of that now, right? If you engage in a meeting in person or a meeting on a computer screen, it's much more cognitively taxing and difficult. And at the end of the day, it's just exhausted. And we also know that we miss a lot of nonverbal cues, as well as the informal meetings that just happened with our peers. It's hard to just show up with a zoom meeting, right? So it can be difficult. Although I will mention that there are a lot of good benefits as well, right? Because it makes meetings more inclusive.


It can make it harder to just jump in or interrupt people. So now when everyone is dialed in, many teams are now taking turns speaking. We see people raising hands to participate. So there are some good benefits here as well. Now, beyond core work and work dynamic challenges, not everyone likes to work from home or has the setup to work from home. Not everyone had planned to work from home. Not everyone has the space or the connectivity. In addition, we are working through a pandemic, so not everyone has childcare or schooling. So it's particularly difficult on parents and much of this burden is falling on women. So again, here, I've highlighted the things that have a significant influence on productivity, and it really is pulling through, right? These things are difficult. And that as we take a look at which things have significant strong influences on productivity, it's kind of tough.


Right? And I did want to note here about how we've spoken for years in the community about the importance of glue work and invisible work, and look at what these challenges are. These are the things that help amplify productivity and teams, and they're often invisible and here they are very, very visible, right? So I will note though, that too many meetings are a consistent trend in a lot of work. So don't ignore this, that this is a trend in your organization. So what's the answer. The answer is that there is no clear answer. The things that are good for some are challenges for others. The things that are challenges for some are particular strengths for others, for many people, those who prefer to work from home before are doing well. And they're thriving. And they're so happy to be working from home now for other people.


Those that love to be in the office are really struggling right now. And they can't wait to go back to the office, but again, not all work from home is during the pandemic. So what did we know about working from home before COVID-19 hit? Here's a quick summary from some of the research. The good was that it did generally tend to improve productivity. We also saw better punctuality and less attrition, right? That flexibility was good. Some of the bad was that we saw fewer promotions. We don't know if it was intentional or if it was kind of an out of sight out of mind thing. But many times people who were working from home just didn't see that promotion, a ladder as quickly as anyone else, or as quickly as those who run the office. We also saw that workplace stress could compound for those with young children.


We're definitely seeing that alcohol right now. Now I categorize these under the worrisome. We see people Tang taking fewer breaks and having longer work days now for people who are definitely not in the DevOps community, they might think this is a win, but for those of us in the community, we know that this is challenging, right? Because it can lead to burnout. Now, some of the key success factors to having successful work from home scenarios and solutions is to have suitable working conditions at home, right? Having good hardware, software, set up connectivity, um, having efficient communication with coworkers, um, and then also having supervisor trusted support. So that's where we come in. Now, there was this great, uh, one of the great studies to come out of the MSR state team was a daily diary study. And one thing that I loved about it was that it included, uh, gratitudes and challenges.


So some of the key findings out of the gratitude section were that 47% of the people found that that daily gratitude reflection positively impacted their wellbeing. And I think that's nice, right? We've seen that in other research before, but that this held true through the challenging times we're having right now, they also, uh, many of them found that flexibility and having time with their family was a bright spot and that they noted that having resources for mental health was particularly helpful. Now, when they were asked about daily challenges, they said that coping with work from home was still a challenge about 60% of them were doing pretty well, but 40% were still having a really hard time after 20 weeks. So keep that in mind, as you work with your teams. Um, another common theme was that many people were still feeling overworked and having a hard time with, um, motivation and focus.


Um, and then finally, the last thing was that physical and mental health really were a struggle. So I think that's something that is coming up in several studies in the several reports that I've seen is that mental health is something that I think many organizations need to start thinking about it as a top priority. So I think that's kind of a nice segue into resilience and burnout, right? How can we think about these things as we start moving forward with our teams, now, many organizations have started thinking about having mental health days and they have found that productivity improves morale improves after these mental health days. So that can be something to consider as well. Now we do know that grinding is no longer an answer, right? Burnout has been a theme in the dev ops community before we know that it's something that has been around for a while.


It tack right. We tend to laud, hero's grinding, but we know it's not sustainable. We know it's not a thing. And far too often, when we do celebrate these heroes, we need to remember that that often has survivorship bias or confirmation bias, and that it's not sustainable. And many times we have people who have been partying out and there's not always success at the end of that road. So we do need to make sure that we are providing time. Mental health days breaks away and watch out for people who may not be taking vacation because many times people are saying, why take vacation if I can't go anywhere. Vacation is also about taking care of yourself and your family and your team. Because remember the world has changed. We're living through the worst pandemic at a hundred years, the worst economy in 80 years, there were civil arrests or civil unrest in 50 years and fires and challenges with childcare and challenges with homeschooling, we need to plan and prioritize for long lasting impacts.


We need to take care of ourselves and take care of our teams because what happens if we lose all of our workforce right now, it's too difficult to backfill. So we can start by making technology sustainable, right? How do we plan for this for the longterm? Luckily we know what much of this looks like. We can embrace our dev ops principles, right? Many of us here we're ahead of the curve. We know where to hit dev ops came from that ops came from a humane way to make tech workable, make tech sustainable, and take care of our peers and our colleagues. While we take care of ourselves, we can leverage automation. This is for consistency, reliability, efficiency, making our own jobs easier. We should lean into this and leverage it scaling with the cloud, right? This is something that's key for us. We can enable services to expand with the demand curves that many of us had never even accounted for.


Right? We can scale up. We can scale down. It helps us, you know, remove so much of that anxiety and burden that we maybe hadn't even accounted for. We could secure our work. This handles access in so many ways that many of our orgs had never planned on. Right? And none of us had assumed that we were all going to be shifting from home to home. This also accounts for security threats that are escalating in ways that many, that we have not seen at this level. Now, something else is we want to make sure that our work is exciting and fun. This presents new opportunities to innovate, to meet customers, changing needs, changing demands. So there is fun, new work and exciting work for our engineering teams as well. I think that's something that's good for us to remember along the way. And then of course, building and fostering our culture.


What does our culture look like now when we need to build and maintain ties in maybe new in new ways, right? What does your offsite look like when you don't go off site? What are the different ways that we communicate now? How do we build and maintain our culture? When our culture has likely changed? Because again, one of the bright spots, or at least one way to paint that silver lining is what was not possible even a year ago is now required so many highly regulated industries so that you could never go to the cloud. You could never deliver services remotely, and now we're embracing it. Not just because that's what the world is doing, but because it is the best way to serve our users, our constituents, our customers. And I think it does provide interesting opportunities and ideas for what we can do.


So now that we've talked about making tech sustainable, because it does help take care of our people. How else can we make the work sustainable? So again, we can take care of ourselves and take care of our teams. I think there are a few ways we can think about here, right? We can think about resources for people that have been hit. The hardest, the research right now is showing the two groups that are being hit the hardest are those for whom childcare is a challenge. And many of those who are isolated without strong social ties and networks. So many times, those are people who are junior in their career. Maybe they just relocated for a job, or maybe people who just started a job just before or during the pandemic, because they don't have those ties. Um, something else is we really should be thinking about mental health, maybe like our tech, maybe we're used to building in resiliency and redundancy in tech, let's really start prioritizing mental health.


Right? Um, I think another thing is thinking about resources for managers. Our managers are shouldering the workloads of people taking time off they're shouldering the burden for their teams. They're taking on all the overload and the overfill. They're having a really tough time right now because they're the backstop. So let's really think about supporting our managers. And then let's think about this personal first, remember productivity is personal work from home is personal. So go back to your teams, go back to your organizations and think about two or three different ways. This manifests, heck let's, let's take a tech approach, right? Think about the different personas and then scale up from there. There won't be a one size fits all. And we're seeing this very clearly in the data and the research now preparing for the future. We can't learn from those who've returned. This is a case study from China.


They went remote early in February. They started a staggered return in late summer. So the situation is so fluid, but here's what we know. There's a new night shift that, that happened when people went remote, right? They started working late at night cause they were spreading out their days, the night shift stuck around even when they went back to work. So let's think about how we can maybe keep that from happening, right? Another one work weeks continue to be longer. It's about 90 minutes longer on average. Um, much of this is due to extra meetings. Managers are really taking a hit. Some managers are seeing workweeks through eight hours longer. We also see managers are shifting to more one-on-one time during work from home. This trend is continuing. The good thing is that has really good positive effects on a team wellbeing. Um, something else, there are strong networks that stayed strong through this disruption.


So that's good. A couple other interesting things. I am used to instant instant messaging my way up during work from home, right? To maintain those connections. Uh, it stayed up during the return to work. Sometimes a worker spend up to 50% more time on, I am. However, the increased increased time spent on video conferencing and phone calls went down as people returned to the office. So preparing for the future, we see that things have changed and they probably won't go back to normal immediately. Right? So let's think about that. Who are we as a company people's frames of reference have changed, their priorities have changed, maybe anticipate people thinking about different career paths, prepare for that. What does work look like? Where will you work? Where will it happen? Will your local government even allow people to be back to work a hundred percent? Well, if you're in a high rise building, how many people will even be allowed into the elevator at once, right?


I'm sure you'll have a real estate people thinking through this, but think about what people may opt to do, knowing that many people really prefer to work from home. What will this look like? Um, what does culture really mean? Is this maybe an opportunity to re-invent it, there are opportunities here. Finally. How do we support our employees and teams? Now this first point I think is, is really exciting and interesting support computing making and creative work. This kind of calls back to something I reported earlier. We see big increases in influxes, in opensource and an open source, uh, creation and activity on weekends and holidays. If your company doesn't allow moonlighting considerate, when people have minimal outlets and options for external activity, right now, give them opportunities to stay engaged and stay excited. Also acknowledge that health and wellness is a concern for everyone. Think of the different ways that you could provide, you know, other types of support and resources for your employees.


So TLDR, here's what we've talked about. Here's what the data shows we are doing more and for longer. Uh, here's what people tell us. It's a mixed bag. Some love it. Some hate it. Uh, productivity is personal and work from home is personal. We chatted about what we knew about work from home before COVID. We talked about resilience and burnout and how making tech and work more sustainable is a nice, helpful way forward. And a few tips on how to prepare for the future. Now also stay tuned. Uh, my own team is working on an updated analysis that will extend much of our findings through a full year and into additional areas as well. So my request and my question, what are your biggest questions about productivity and wellbeing and how are you currently approaching them in your organization? Uh, thank you so much for being here. I will be in our slack channels looking forward to hearing from you.