Faculty

McIntire Professor Peter Gray on the Analytics Tool Setting Return-to-Work Schedules

A new article co-written by McIntire Professor Peter Gray explains how an analytics tool called ONA offers a new approach to guiding return-to-office decisions.

Peter Gray

By Whitelaw Reid, wdr4d@virginia.edu

Analytics can help tell a stockbroker when to buy or sell, a farmer when to water his crops and a football coach which play to run. The list goes on and on.

But what analytics has not focused on quite as much has been the working relationships employees have with each other.

This is what makes organizational network analysis, known as “ONA,” so intriguing to University of Virginia Professor Peter Gray – especially as it pertains to the complex questions leaders are facing about their employees’ return-to-work schedules as the worst of the pandemic (hopefully) fades.

Gray, who has been teaching ONA in the McIntire School of Commerce’s M.S. in the Management of Information Technology
Program for several years, recently co-wrote an article with Babson College professor Rob Cross explaining how ONA offers a new approach to effectively guiding return-to-office decisions.

In simple terms, can you explain to our UVA Today audience what ONA is and how it works?

ONA is a tool that can help leaders understand how their work really gets done in their organizations. It uses data about interactions between people and applies network science to reveal the informal structure of the organization. By making invisible patterns of collaboration visible, it provides leaders with insights into how they can better lead and manage.

Broadly speaking, what are the benefits of this approach?

ONA is the next step forward in what is known as “People Analytics” – when leaders use data and analytics to inform key employee-related decisions in organizations. Traditionally the source of data used in People Analytics were attributes of employees themselves – for instance, their work history or job performance. Increasingly this field is moving toward understanding characteristics of employees’ relationships with each other – for example, how much time they spend interacting in a typical week, whether they need even more access to each other, and whether an interaction leaves them with a greater sense that what they do at work has purpose and matters.

Understanding the networks of collaboration in organizations is often key to informing a wide range of organizational issues, including improving innovation, large-scale organizational changes, client connectivity, talent management and leadership development, to name a few. Understanding the size, reach and quality of network ties provides leaders with an important new source of information that can greatly improve the effectiveness of their decisions and the success of their initiatives.

In terms of specific return-to-office strategies that so many leaders of organizations are grappling with, what can ONA tell them? Are there any conclusions that can be drawn based on the research you’ve done?

Leaders must decide three things about return-to-office strategies: Who should be brought back together in a weekly cadence of in-person and virtual interactions? What work should be prioritized in the now-scarcer in-person time? And, how do leaders most effectively manage the transition to a hybrid model with the least resistance? The patterns of informal connectivity that ONA reveal shed new light on the first question by helping leaders understand which parts of their organizations should be brought back together and which elements are well-served through virtual interactions.

The data can also show what kinds of work are best done in-person (for instance, work that involves brainstorming or complex problem-solving) and which are best suited for virtual interactions (such as information transfer, approvals and coordination). And by understanding which influencers in the network are hesitant to return to the office, leaders can show them how their own networks are dependent on in-person interactions in order to hopefully enlist their help in designing a return-to-office approach that fits their needs and motivates those around them to want to return, too.

Broadly, our research shows that while many people are not keen to return to the office full-time, many recognize that a hybrid approach gives them the best of both worlds: in-person access to the people they want to interact with, and focused time working from home without the hassle of commuting. It needn’t be all-or-nothing, and well-designed strategies for bringing people back that leverage the insights provided by ONA can harness these dual employee desires.

Can you explain the types of employee data that is collected and how that data can be used to inform the return-to-work decisions?

ONA data can be collected using a survey-based approach, or through algorithmic processing of the data exhaust generated from email, texting, scheduling software and collaborative work applications.

In general, the survey-based approach provides qualitatively richer and more focused insights. Through a survey, employees can rate the relative importance of virtual versus in-person interaction modalities for each person in their network, identifying the extent to which one modality is much more efficient and effective than the other. Aggregating and analyzing this data can provide much insight – for instance, clusters of employees who most need to work together in person at some point during the workweek.

In the course of your research, were there any surprises?

I am personally surprised by the number of senior leaders in organizations whose first reaction to the improving health situation this spring was to begin planning for a wholesale return to pre-pandemic work configurations. I have my suspicions about what drove this response in some people – for instance, a belief that employees who are not in the office may not be as productive, or perhaps they were projecting their own eagerness to return to the office onto others, assuming everyone wants to.

The reality is much more nuanced; other research has shown that people are actually more productive working from home, and that the quality-of-life benefits from a hybrid work arrangement can enhance employee job satisfaction.

For sure, there are benefits to being co-located that are difficult or impossible to replicate virtually, so these leaders aren’t entirely wrong in wanting some in-person time. But I think few organizations will ultimately return to pre-pandemic work configurations.

As organizations start to welcome back employees in the coming months, is there anything you will be keeping a close eye on?

Now that many of us have had lots of experience working with virtual technologies like Zoom, I’m keen to see how new workplace cultures will evolve that bring the best of these technologies to bear for what they are well-suited to do, and at the same time retain the best practices for in-person collaboration in the workplace. We’re in an interesting place where much is up in the air, and where new norms and routines will evolve as people figure out how to balance these two modes of collaboration.

I bet that when we look back on this time from some vantage point five years out, we’ll see that 2021 was the start of a much more dynamic and flexible version of office life that hopefully will benefit both employees and employers.

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