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December 7, 2020

Working From Home During a Pandemic: A Tale of Two Cities

By IT Revolution

“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 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, a handful 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. What the data shows about doing work. Is this better or is it worse?”

In her 2020 DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas presentation, Dr. Nicole Forsgren broke down the data around what’s happening with work in a pandemic. Below, we pull out the major points that her and her team’s data reveals.

Getting Work Done: What the Data Shows

Year-Over-Year Growth

Good news is, in data pulled through the first two months of the year Forsgren and team show year-over-year growth into developer activity data. Things like pushes, pull requests, commenting on issues, commenting on pull requests, etc.  As Forsgren says, “I don’t want to say that there’s no observed COVID effect, but that in itself is pretty interesting, the fact that you have consistent year-over-year growth through a pandemic.” This data has been pulled through the first two months of the year. Microsoft found similar results through May.

Longer Days

Turns out our days are getting longer. We see a big jump starting in about March, based on the difference between developers’ first push of the day and their last push of the day.

But, is this just spreading the same amount of work out? Turns out, volume of work also increased. While Forsgren stresses that this is a rough approximation, it’s an indication that we’re not just spreading our work out, we’re doing more of it.

“Now, interestingly enough,” Forsgren says, “this echoes much of what previous work from home research found, that work expands to fill the space.”

Again, Microsoft found similar results, finding that people are starting work earlier, working later, working through lunch, and the afternoon lull is no longer happening. people are just working more.

Collaboration is up

Turns out, the data is showing that collaboration times are getting faster. Forsgren posits that this could be that we’re sitting around our computers and are simply more available for reviews.

Also open source project creation is growing, up to almost 30%. “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.”

How Has Productivity Change

“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.” But, of course, there’s always two sides to every story. Forgren digs a bit deeper to unearth the untold story.

How has productivity changed compared to working in an office? Turns out, productivity is really individual. Forsgren and team found that about two thirds of people are saying their productivity has either not changed at all or it’s improved. But the other third (not an insignificant number) are saying that it’s been really hard, their productivity has suffered.

“We really need to remember, again, productivity is individual.” Forsgren says. “People are affected in different ways, depending on their work styles, depending on their circumstances, depending on the benefits that they may see.”

Who’s Thriving At Home

For some people, working from home and this shift to work from home has given them exactly what they need. This is particularly true for neuro-diverse engineers and software developers, like some who have ADHD or dyslexia. They can set up their environment just how they want it, or just how they need it without disruptions or without judgment.

Working from home has given many people an opportunity to manage their day in a way that makes them feel better and feel more productive. Maybe you take two hours off in the middle of the day to take a nap or to work out and then you work later in the evenings.

What’s Not Working So Well

Now, what are developers saying about the challenges with working from home? Through their research, Forsgren and team are hearing a lot about feelings of isolation, difficulty connecting with people, difficulty connecting with teams. Meetings are different when they’re on a screen. Conferences are different when they’re on a screen.

Other Factors

Beyond core work and work dynamic challenges, not everyone likes to or has the setup to work from home. Space and connectivity become a challenge. In addition, since we’re working through a pandemic, childcare and caregiving are presenting unique challenges.

What’s the Answer

Of course, as you could guess, 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,” says Forsgren.

In the end, it looks like we are doing more and for longer. Some people are loving WFH. Some hate it. Productivity is personal and work from home is personal.


You can view Dr. Nicole Forsgren’s full presentation in the IT Revolution Video Library here, where she goes on to talk about work from home before COVID, resilience and burnout, and how making tech and work more sustainable is a nice helpful way forward, as well as a few tips on how to prepare for the future.

Plus, you can get a more in depth look at Forsgren and teams full research and results in their 2020 State of the Octoverse report.

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IT Revolution

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1 Comment

  • Rod Dec 13, 2020 3:20 pm

    Very interesting article. I have wanted to work from home (WFH) for many years, but have been denied WFH during all of that time. About a year ago I learned from a tech recruiter that no employers in the state I live, approved WFH. They all didn't trust their employees, so the adamantly denied any requests to WFH. But that COVID-19 hit. As much as those employers hated to send their people home to work, they had no choice. The Governor demanded it. And it has proven to not be the horrible drop to zero productivity that employers were certain it would be. In fact, as this article points out, productive as at least as good as it was, when we worked in the office. I totally LOVE WFH!! I will admit that I haven't the disadvantages that others have. I haven't young children at home. For the most part, those living at home take care of themselves. I'm free to do my job. I also have good Internet connectivity. In fact, in many ways better than I have at the office. Also because I'm WFH I can access sites, such as Twitter and other websites, to ask questions, which is something I am denied at work. This has sped my up productivity by at least an order of magnatude. When working in the office, they block lots of websites where I need to go to ask questions and get answers. That normally results in at least 2 days delay in getting my job done. Sometimes that takes several days if I have to get an answer, try it out in the office, return home to post the results, get a more refined answer, etc. Now that I'm WFH I can get onto a website to ask a question and wait an hour or so to get an answer. Instead of two or 5 days resolving an issue, it's more like an hour to two hours getting the answer and implementing it! Some things haven't changed, even though I'm WFH. Contrary to what Dr. Forsgren reports about people WFH, in some might take a nap or go for a run around the neighborhood in the middle of the day, my employer required that all people WFH work exactly the same hours they do, when in the office. No variations; no exceptions. I'm guessing that after decades of not trusting their employees to WFH, they still wish to retain control in other areas. Even though we have various collaboration software available to us, that doesn't matter. In conclusion, I have enjoyed WFH. Its something I've wanted to do for many years and I am more productive at it than I am at the office. I hope that I will be able to continue once the pandemic is over. I only wish that it hadn't taken the COVID pandemic, with all of the people who have suffered and several who have died, to have brought WFH about.

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