The COVID19 outbreak forced many countries around the globe to introduce quarantine measures forcing many organisations to move their activities online. Some argue that working from home has many benefits, including those associated with lowering our impact on the environment, seeing our families more, and being generally more focused on work without having to make unnecessary travel. Others point out the increased stress levels associated with having to reorganise the workday in order to care for small children, limited ability to go outside, as well as reduced opportunities to socialise with friends face-to-face. Recently, a number of articles argued that COVID19 makes us more productive, even "hyperproductive" as while working from home people tend to "panic work" (see, for example, articles from Forbes and Bloomberg). But do we actually observe panic-working or, rather, creating a perception of panic working by scheduling too many online meetings, which I will label "panic signalling"?
What Is Panic Working?
According to Dr Ali Fenwick, professor of organisational behaviour at Hult International Business School in Dubai (as cited by this Forbes article), panic working refers to the hyperproductivity as a result of people's working from home for extended periods of time. Dr Fenwick even named several reasons rooted in behavioural biases to explain the panic working phenomenon such as (i) the ostrich effect (trying to escape reality by engaging into habitual work activities); (ii) busy bee syndrome (desire to do things people usually do not have time to do); (iii) working to survive effect (focusing on work instead of thinking about problems they might have); (iv) illusion of control (trying to reduce perception of uncertainty by doing things people are familiar with and can control).
While I am very sympathetic with all attempts to draw attention to the current unique "working from home situation" as well as behaviours it generates, I am not at all convinced that people are, in fact, over-productive or hyper-productive. We do not have any evidence of this. At least, not yet. I would argue that many people seem to be trying to make an appearance of a lot of activity, i.e., they engage into panic signalling rather than panic working. Whether panic signalling actually leads to increased productivity (or hyper-productivity) is not clear as has yet to be proved by in-depth research. At least, I would say that it is a bit premature to talk about hyper-productivity until we have actually seen some before- and after- quarantine productivity measures and had an opportunity to compare them.
Are People Panic Signalling?
Here is why I want to argue that people are panic signalling rather than panic working. Indeed, some of us, like the author of this Bloomberg article, might have tried to do something we usually do not have time to do - like sorting out our email Inboxes. Yet, what I observed in the last few weeks, as what is rather hindering my own productivity, is the increased demand for online meetings. Every single group I have ever worked with or know has digital meet-ups, virtual team teas, online catch-ups, etc., which happen several times a week if not every day. As a result, my life pre- and post-COVID can be roughly summarised as follows:
Yep. 95% of my day is now wasted in useless, unnecessary, and completely redundant meetings; while valuable and important meetings still constitute about 5% of my day (notice, the percentage of important meetings remained constant!). I am not sure, may be I am alone in this battle with useless meetings, but don't you feel the same? As a result, things that I really need to do are often postponed because there is "yet another" web conference I must (in reality, totally must not!) attend.
Why do people panic-signal? Well, when you work in the office, you are seen to be working by many people. You have chats with your co-workers, your boss, your customers, and you feel useful and productive. Yet, at home, there is no visibility of what you do to people from your usual work environment. So, how would you compensate for this lack of visibility? Exactly - you schedule many online meetings to show and get confirmation in your own mind that you are being productive, which may or not be the case in reality. Notice, that panic signalling has nothing to do with illusion of control or any other behavioural biases mentioned above. It stems from a simple desire to retain the same status quo in terms of our personal perception of our activity levels. Since this perception is often fed by the visibility (visibility of our activity to others), we are trying to recreate the same level of visibility we enjoyed in the physical world, in the virtual world.
Why Is Panic Signalling Dangerous?
Panic signalling is damaging for many reasons. I want to focus on two of them. First and foremost, panic signalling creates additional levels of stress. To give you a concrete example, one of my colleagues at work is now constantly bombarded with meeting requests. He works in a leadership role and tries to be very nice to people, so very often he accepts these requests, because he feels that, as a leader, in the current situation, he needs to be responsive. As a result, his day represents non-stop online meetings, which run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and sometimes well into his private time in the evening. For example, today he told me that he had no lunch and had to eat dinner at his desk, while having yet another meeting. Now, would anyone want to make a guess what impact will such schedule have on my friend's wellbeing?
Second, unnecessary meetings do not only negatively impact your personal wellbeing, they also create unneeded complications for cyber security teams. Zoom, as well as other platforms, despite their desire to provide good service to their customers at these uncertain times, are not the most secure way to have meetings and much disruption as well as security breaches can happen during the meetings. Taking specifically about Zoom, known cyber security issues involving the Zoom platform include, but are not limited to: (a) meeting bombing (adversaries can connect to a meeting if they hijack the meeting number if the meeting is not password-protected); (b) password stealing through Windows (hackers may be able to capture the password "hash" and decrypt it, giving him access to the Zoom user's Windows account); (c) malware injection through Windows; (d) iOS profile sharing; etc. (see here for a complete list of possible threats). So, while you may think that the more meetings you have, the better, every online meeting you hold or engage with creates an opportunity for adversaries to compromise your security.
It has recently been argued that working from home in quarantine conditions leads to panic working. Yet, very often we observe panic signalling instead of panic working. It is too early to say whether panic signalling will eventually result in increased productivity. One thing is clear: if you care about cyber security and your personal wellbeing, you need to cancel all unnecessary and time-consuming meetings. Do it. Do it now. You will feel better. I promise.