Alexander Schwall on Behaviors & Performance During COVID-19

Everyone is speculating about how COVID-19 has changed work, but in this episode, I speak to a man who has more than an opinion: he has data. Dr. Alexander Schwall, Chief Scientist and Co-Founder of Rhabit Analytics, joins me to discuss what’s changed for employees–and what hasn’t–since COVID-19. Are employees more or less concerned about pay? Work-life balance? Does the manager matter? At the risk of sounding like a bad Buzzfeed headline, the answers may surprise you.


This is an AI-translated transcript and may not be completely accurate. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  00:02

Welcome, everyone to the DEP 12 podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Ben butina. I am joined today by Dr. Alexander Schwall. How are you today, Alexander? go very well, how are you? I’m doing pretty well. Now you are the chief scientist and co founder of rabbit analytics. And you’re here today to talk about some data that you recently gathered. But let’s get some background first. What is rabbit analytics? What do you do?

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  00:29

Yeah, that’s good question. Rhabit analytics. We are a we are a tool, basically a platform that makes it very, very easy for people to exchange feedback and organizations. And this feedback is intended to be very work related. The The devil is in the details a little bit and it’s about how we collect that feedback. So what we do is we take a, you know, a competency model essentially. And now there are probably a few IO psychologists here in this the audience so we take a competency model and we break it down into Behavioral markers, as we call them. So the concept of communication, we may talk about how your communication is concise, that could be a marker. And then we take these markers and distribute them among the people who are working with you to make sure that you get feedback from from somebody who’s actually on the receiving end of these behaviors naturally. We don’t we don’t only do this once we do this repeatedly. So typically, once or twice a week or every other week, people get a little reminder over email to provide feedback, they get a stack of cards and on these cards, they see the markers that about people that are working with a swipe right, if they do it, often they swipe left if they don’t do it, so often, they swipe down if they they do it only sometimes, but it’s a very quick interface that doesn’t belong written feedback.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  01:48

And so you gather a lot of feedback. And I assume it’s through through people’s mobile phones generally.

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  01:54

Oh, any device like we do it on mobile phones. We can do it on computers, of course. tablets we just add a technology that allows people to do it on on Internet Explorer 11 so we go back, we support basically any device that has a browser that’s all we need.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  02:11

Okay, so for those of you playing along at home rabbit is our h A Be it and you’ll find a link to the company in the show notes for today’s episode. Now the big question that we’re all trying to deal with right now is is how we react to COVID-19. So is rabbit doing anything differently in response to COVID-19 considering how much of the workplace has changed?

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  02:35

Yes we have with Well first of all, we have dissolved our physical office so we got rid of that because we you know, we didn’t see the need for it and we didn’t you know, to be frank didn’t think we would need it in the near future. So we are working from home. And, and this is something that we are, you know, experimenting with we started with, you know, trying out a few things, what is working and went from, you know, multiple chickens today essentially as an emergency response, right, trying to figure out okay, how can we basically create a surrogate a replication of the office environment where we have, you know, ample communication? How could we replicate this at home? So we started with, with, you know, multiple check ins per day, but we try to right now to evolve this into something that is maybe


a little bit different, a little bit better, you.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  03:29

Great. Have your clients asked for any kind of difference in the service that you provide in response to COVID-19?

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  03:37

Yeah, absolutely. I think. And I was, I was around in 2008. I got I got to create a little bit bigger story arc, but sure, in 2008, and when the recession hit, my impression was that HR departments were considered more of a cost factor that you need to essentially get rid of right like, spend as little as possible. On HR stuff, you know, like to stay away from that. And and here during the COVID crisis, my impression is that HR and talent managers and all the people who are thinking about the well being of your employees, actually not seen as as a as a burden, but as a tool that is going to be instrumental in making things better. So that means our clients have approached us asking for, can you give us different survey content, which we can evaluate if people are feeling comfortable going back to work if they are feeling supported by their managers? Do you see them being able to to, you know, handle this this crisis pretty well. So I you know, I wouldn’t say that, that. You know, it has fundamentally changed our business, but I see it, like us being seen as, you know, part of the solution, not part of the problem. Let’s put it that way.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  04:55

Sure. And we have kind of a naturally occurring experiment here. Have a fortunate one. But experiment nonetheless, where we’re looking at lots of maybe so much an experiment is just a longitudinal data set, but we’re looking at a big change in how companies including presumably those that are clients of yours, from quarter one to quarter two, and how and how we’re all working, at least those of us who are working from home or maybe they’re working in offices that are, you know, under tight constrictions, yeah. And you can see presumably, data across all those organizations. What have you seen that’s different about, you know, employee engagement or employee behaviors between q1 and q2?


Well, this this was like one

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  05:44

of the biggest eye openers for us and and we thought you know, given the nature of, of the the experimental design, right, that it’s hitting everybody at the same time universally across the land, right. All our clients are affected. They all Have to react very quickly to moving workforces into, you know, remote work from working remotely type of arrangements, something that would have taken years otherwise has to be done in like a week or two. So we thought, this this, this has to be like the biggest thing ever. And we’re going to see tremendous shifts and data. So we were waiting for the grant unifying trend, right that, you know, it’s visible everywhere, but we could find a little bit of it. But we could see big differences between companies and even within companies, depending on how they’re handling it. And I’m actually like, I mean, you and I have psychologist, Simon, our psychologist, like, think about how we conceptualize our fields, right we are we are a field where we think about in great detail on on what makes good leaders what makes good organizations, great teams, what do we have to do to do all of that? And this stuff all still matters. I see on CNN. In like these, like LinkedIn personalities and influencers who are saying, oh, companies are rethinking the value of remote work, like Laszlo Bock from like former Google, you know, he says, you know, people were just really worried about that job. That was a doom and gloom kind of situation. And they were, you know, working harder because they were worried, and he says it’s not sustainable. And I think this is probably part of this. But it’s not enough to explain all of this. This This doesn’t explain this grand unifying trend. We seeing so many variations of that. I can I can walk you through a couple of interesting things we found but yeah, agreed. Yeah. So like one thing that we did find and we I personally thought this was kind of curious is the


some of our clients

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  07:55

measure of satisfaction with pay? So that is one area that was around Like in the 60s, so 60% agreement 60% of people would agree. Yeah, this was something that, you know, I’m happy with with my pay. And it’s certainly a little political people probably will not, you know, say, hey, my pay is awesome. If they kind of want to get paid more butter, suddenly in in April, and may, we see this number going up, and we see this number going up pretty substantially like to up like in the ad. So basically there, so roughly 15 to 20% increase. The pay hasn’t changed, mind you. So people were maybe thinking about, ah, a lot of turmoil in the world. Maybe I shouldn’t signal that I’m unhappy with my pay to my employer right now. So that’s, that’s like, that’s a very simple explanation.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  08:46

Interesting. Okay. So you’re seeing a so one of the things you found and this is across organizations, and I understand you know, there’s variations among all your different client organizations, but the Feedback is less about pay as anything gone up. So is there anything that’s sort of correspondingly that people are saying or is more important now?

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  09:10

So one one thing where we, where we saw it trends and again, like we’re not talking about like seismic shifts going from 80 to 20%, we talked about it like a 10 15% shift. And this was in, in work life balance. So we have one item in our engagement survey that people get, and that is about my company considers my personal life when making decisions on my time. So this is about you know, it’s not about like my company’s not invading my my personal life at all. It’s about at least considering it, then I’m just being reckless with it, right. So the bar is relatively low. And, and here we saw, again, not across the board, but by and large, pretty big increases of about 10% from like Pre March to May in June. But interestingly, we have data for July already. We see this dropping again. So it is maybe a temporary effect and it’s going down again. So I am, I cannot completely fully understand where it’s coming from. Because on the one hand we saving about an hour in commute time. So this should probably be give us more time. Yeah, it’s also making it so much easier for your boss to invade your personal space. Right. You’re not just working from home, you’re kind of like living at work, so to speak. And you available more easily. But, again, it’s it hasn’t shown this devastating effect that I would have expected.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  10:45

Yeah, yeah, you know, n equals one, you know, my anecdotal experiences that I, I worked from home for about six years prior to, you know, this was in the early 2000s. And my experience was very much what you described, which is living at work rather than working where you live. And it was to the point where I almost never felt like I could turn off. You know, I always felt like there was a need to be constantly on call because I was, you know, maybe one of the 20% of people who are working from home full time. Yeah. So there was maybe an impression management kind of thing that I was worried about. With this, were just about everyone in my organization who can work from home is working from home, it does feel a little different. There are more structured hours, and I do work more. A couple of those. Some of that time that I used to have in commuting, I’m definitely putting more time in at work. Doesn’t feel like I’m doing it because I have to or I’m gonna lose my job if I don’t or anything like that. It’s just, I now have more time to do that. But I do feel like there’s more ironically, are you because we had to do it so quickly, and there were so many people in involved. And you know, like you said it didn’t take a couple of years. It took a couple of weeks because that’s what it needed to take. The structure of the office schedule kind of reproduced itself at home. So that’s very cool. Is there anything else that you saw that this surprise, it’s not like the big surprise is that you were expecting bigger changes than you’re actually seeing? What did you expect to see in that data?


Well, we thought,

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  12:29

the work life balance thing basically taking the biggest head because you know, I’m in front of slack, my manager can reach me through slack and enough to pick up the phone. And now I’m available basically all the time. So we thought this is this is the biggest thing. The second biggest thing. We thought that opportunity for growth, we have a couple of items around people’s, you know, perception of how well they can grow as an individual would take a nosedive because You know, you are not able to observe people you’re not able to, you know, look over somebody’s shoulder, you may not have these chance encounters. But that didn’t move the needle at all, like for few clients, there were there were little shifts, but I would say there were there was mostly noise that were not really that significant. But this, this, this, this was actually not effective. The third area and that’s for me, the most fascinating is loyalty and commitment to the employer. So this is a mix of items around turnover, intention of feeling loyal to the employer, you know, recommending the employer as a place to work to others, family and friends. And, and there we we saw, again, very big variations across companies. So companies said we’re always strong on this state strong. So and once we saw that we looked at companies who are the lowest And for them, there was maybe some fluctuation, this took a dip around April and May. But then I also looked into the, into the relationship with manager behavior. So as I mentioned earlier, rabbit doesn’t just collect engagement data, that’s something we collect all the time. And we also measure how managers are behaving on typical bread and butter activities that managers should be doing, and coaching and delegating and all those things. So here we notice, and this kind of explains why there’s no grand unifying trend because it comes back to the manager, we noticed that managers who have who are more hands on managers and I’m really meaning like transactional managers, managers who set boundaries who are essentially telling you what to do to some degree. Setting goals, setting expectations, holding people accountable, holding the team accountable, tracking the team’s progress. Those are items Right, that for them we saw pretty strong correlations with, with loyalty. So I’m, we we saw correlations from the from the point 30s up into the point 50s on that one. So, turnover intention was like very closely linked to a manager being being this, this hands on manager. So if you keep that in mind, if you have a manager like this doesn’t make a difference if you are working from home or working in an office, if you have a manager who sets these boundaries. And these expectations you probably know at the end of the day, okay, I’ve I’ve done my work, I’ve fulfilled my, my, my, my quota here for today. I don’t have to worry about being online for the rest of the night.


You know? Yeah, so

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  15:49

it. I mean, we’ve been studying this for for many, many years, right. And managers really matter. It really makes a big difference.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  15:59

Yeah, that Makes a lot of sense that if you you know, in addition to the the sort of harder boundary between work and life, in addition to getting clear feedback on your performance versus if you have a manager that’s a little less structured in that way, without having you know, people around that you see in the office, the normal feedback that you get, as you go through your you’re face to face interactions that you don’t really know how you’re doing. And so you end the day feeling maybe like you could never do enough for that you never accomplished what you wanted to set out. But with a manager that’s providing the structure and that feedback, it would help

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  16:39

them. And I haven’t analyzed the data yet, but I wouldn’t be like in that way. But I wouldn’t be surprised that managers who are good managers did not get better, they did not get worse or potentially even better. In the course of this change in managers will always happen poor managers have gotten worse. So I’m I will be surprised if we can find some sort of interaction here between between these two things that really matters. Like, managers really make the big difference in this how this crisis is, whether it how it is perceived how people adapt to it. They’re just the key.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  17:19

Fascinating. Thank you. And I hope I can follow up at some point when you do that analysis, because it, it makes some intuitive sense. But of course, you know, there’s Yeah, it’s always the answer is in the data. Is there anything you found? So looking ahead a little bit to the future? Is there anything you found in about returning to work, trying to work so maybe not the best way to put it but that’s kind of the way that the terminology we’re all using now, but in terms of how people are feeling or behaving in reaction to the idea of coming back to the office.

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  17:51

Yeah, that’s, that’s something we’ve been. We’ve been looking into we have we have a we have some survey data on this. We did a large survey with with a pretty big client of ours. And they asked two key questions and that is, would you like to return, I would like to return to my desk like my co located desk. And only 26% of people agreed to that. So, for them, this was the most surprising piece of information. They didn’t think that this number would be so low by and large, people really either like or don’t mind working from home. I mean, we had a few associated questions with that. 94% said that they have a space at home where they can work productively. 90% said they have all the technology that they need and all the tools and 86% said they’re even getting there, you know personal interpersonal social needs met.



Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  18:56

the this we are not observing it. Strong, like people saying we must go back to work, like what would you see in the schools were people saying we need to get our kids back to school? We we don’t see this with people saying we have to be working from our traditional cool. Okay.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  19:15

Yeah, that makes that makes sense. I’m surprised the numbers are as extreme as they are reported, but it does kind of make sense with you know, my own little anecdotal experience of this. I think there was a lot of stress at the beginning, but we’ve had time to adapt to your point about people, you know, finding space or making space where they can work productively, they’ve now had time to do that and to create those boundaries, and I can see why I would be so attractive. The interesting thing to me is it kind of points back to what you said earlier about managers being so key. And maybe it being even more about a sort of an upper echelons thing now where, you know, a year ago if we were talking, we’d be in the strongest employee market. Yeah, probably in the history of the country. Now, we’re arguably in the strongest employer market, at least since possibly the Great Depression. So it’s really going to come down to what do those senior leaders decide is best. And hopefully, they’ll they’ll take that kind of data into consideration. But it’s interesting to see how that has shifted. And I think we are still we haven’t even started to grasp with to get a handle on what that means. It’s been quite a while now that we’ve been in this employee market. shifting to the employer market is is going to be real whiplash, I think for organizations and candidates.

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  20:47

I think so I think the but at the same time, I mean, that is that I think there’s this opportunity for employees as well because you know, if you don’t have to be co located if you don’t have to Be in, you know, Silicon Valley or in you know, Austin and you could pick up a job in these these highly desirable areas with highly desirable employers, you know, people who may not been able to reach out for these jobs are now. You know, it’s maybe within reach for them. So the I think the labor market has been gotten more transparent and maybe, I mean, it’d be what we will see in the future, but it’s it’s a more a more balanced market with more mobility of people because they don’t have to physically move around. The one one thing I wanted to share and this really caught my attention, and this is why I would recommend that any, any employer hasn’t done so yet. Like surveys, there are people. We have one multinational client that did the survey across Europe and the US and they asked the question, do you feel it’s safe to return to home? I’m sorry, do you feel it’s safe to return to the Office not at home. And us employees agree to this around 20% and people in Europe, so this is Switzerland and Germany. They 75% agree to that. So the the, the two things confounded right. When we ask, would you like to return to my desk, be confounding whether you would prefer to work from a desk and whether you feel it’s safe, right. So these things need to be be separated out on a survey to figure out, would you come? Would you come back? Would you go back to your desk, if you felt it was it was safe? So that is that is the the key question. But again, I would I would anticipate that region by region, employer by employer, this could this could look very differently.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  22:51

Yeah, yeah. And I think another sort of naturally occurring experiment, if you will, that you’ll Be able to collect data on and maybe share some some inferences with us and in the future is about, you know, when offices are opening back up and on moss and you know, some companies are bringing people back, some aren’t Some are giving you the option, comparing, you know, engagement and behaviors for those who work from home to those in the office and seeing what that looks like. I’m also curious about, you know, what it means for things like career development, you know, you could see and there’s a little low the peer reviewed research backs this up that you know, the folks who are in the office, so to speak, or have a leg up in terms of being identified as a high potential and in room for higher level roles and those who choose to stay and work from home. It’ll be interesting to see if that changes considering how many people are now working from home and how much more behavior and performance were able to observe from from the home base. works.

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  24:00

Yeah, I think I think this this, like we in our field should should look into this collectively. I mean, if you if you used to work from home what you just described like you were 20%. So yeah, like the working from home diaspora. And the big, the big chunk of people are in the office and they are networking, they’re building connections and all of this stuff. This do this via, you know, effects stay when you reach a certain critical mass of people working from home, let’s say that only 20% are co located. And 80% are working from home this this this Hold up. For me the like, the thing that kills me as an app psychologist, and also he had rabid when I look when I look across the twittersphere and the LinkedIn sphere is and then Facebook.


You know, we

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  24:53

we’ve been trying to figure out how to work well from the office, right? This is not something that that we have We have not cracked that not yet. Nobody would say does it make sense to work from an office? Is it? Is it more effective? it like nobody asked this question. I mean, you can go back to like the 19th century to like, all the firewall to like the principles of management where they talk about how to structure your company. We’ve been like figuring this out for 150 years, we have found some answers some solutions, but we haven’t. Like exhaustively resolved the issue on how to work from an office. And I see people like saying, oh, working from from home is terrible. We’ve been doing this for like three months. Three, four months, give it a chance. I mean, they will be learning that we will figure stuff out technology will catch up and already has to a large degree, we will get more savvy, and then the human component will change as well. And I’m certain that there will be people who start networking through the non traditional means, you know, they will maybe joining a, a zoom happy hour with people in their company where they can at work as opposed to, you know, being at the physical happy hour, you know that all of this stuff that needs time to evolve. So to, to contrast, the efficacy of remote work with office work right now, I think is, you know, too early.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  26:24

Yeah, yeah. And I think there’s a sort of a status quo bias, that’s probably not the right phrase. But, you know, I think about it in terms of just a slight digression here to something like, you know, the peer reviewed publishing system where, okay, if, you know, if IO psychology or you know, really just, you know, scholarly or scientific endeavors we’re starting today. Would we build anything like what we’ve got, would we say, Well, you know, the main thing is we should just have these paper based journals that are run by three companies, and we should have these people working For free to review them and we charge them a gazillion dollars. It’s a No, of course not. But that’s the status quo. So that’s what you work against. So it’s an interesting sort of thought experiment to say if, if we had been working from home all this time, and we were now saying, I wonder if we should give this office thing a try? Like, would it make sense to come and work at an office if we were looking at this with fresh eyes?

Alexander Schwall, Ph.D.  27:25

Exactly like that? I love the analogy, right? we would we would we say, Okay, let’s commute an hour, take five hours out of our week or potentially more, to be sitting next to each other shoulder to shoulder not necessarily talking to you. It’s not like we are we’re, like, have interdependent tasks these days, right? It’s not like he’s swinging a hammer together. We’re digging a trench together. We like I’m working in Excel on this thing. And they’re going to give this to you later on. So you can do something with it, right? So there’s what is the interdependence so if if If we would look at that, I don’t think we would come to the conclusion that it’s like absolutely necessary to be sitting next to each other in a physical space, but to maybe create and design these environments, like electronically or not, in which it’s easy to communicate. I think that’s what this is all about. I really like I like this thought experiment a lot, because I think companies who engage in this thought experiment and think about, okay, as opposed to be doing what we’re doing in the very beginning, right, where we said, okay, we won’t have check ins, we want to be able to talk to people on a frequent basis. So creating this, this, the surrogate approach of the office environment, or there may be ways where we can do this more effectively. So instead of seeing working from home as a, as a, as a substitute for something real, think of it as how can we make working from home actually more effective and more meaningful and more efficient than what we do? In offices,

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  29:01

yeah, and there’s just so many. So many questions that branch off from that, you know, one that occurs to me, and I’ll, I’ll try to wrap up after this because I realize I’m talking a lot in this episode. But is, you know, if that does, in fact become the case, and it seems likely that, you know, at least some companies will choose to extend and some already have the work from home option, at least part time permanently going forward is, you know, will that create another gap, or a further gap between sort of blue collar and white collar work? insofar as you know, if you, if you build something, you can’t do that from your garage? Yeah, you got to be in you know, in a factory or in a shop to do that. Lots of other jobs that require you know, things like delivery, which has become, you know, obviously a lot more important during the pandemic, and things like that does it? Does it widen the gap between these white collar office based jobs And blue collar working jobs. But that’s just one of I think, hundreds of possible topics we could discuss. But I do want to respect your time. And I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today. I think you have raised some fascinating questions and shared some great insights. I’m going to share a link to rabbit and I’m also going to share a link to a white paper that he recently also authored on empathy. And I’d encourage anyone who enjoyed this program to please check that out. Thank you, Alexander.


Well, thanks for your time was a pleasure.