Remote Work & Productivity - What is the Answer?

Is remote work the answer to some of your productivity and inclusion challenges?

This week, we are going to touch on these two key elements, results, and perhaps consequences of remote work.

Today, let’s start with productivity.

Managers and employees radically disagree about the relationship between working from home and productivity. Nicholas Bloom, Jose Maria Barrero, Steven Davis, Brent Meyer, and Emil Mihaylov of the Harvard Business Review analyze this difference. They find that managers believe that remote work reduces productivity, whereas employees think it significantly increases productivity.

For example, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman believes that buying into the idea that 100% remote work wouldn’t cost startups creativity is one of the tech industry’s greatest mistakes. Altman isn’t alone in his thinking.

Gregory Daco, chief economist at EY-Parthenon, has stated that he hears “stories of reduced productivity because of the new work environment,” and that imperfect hybrid arrangements could be a possible cause of the productivity plummet.

Further, other industry leaders have championed similar claims around remote work. Jane Thier of Yahoo Finance writes: “CEOs such as JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff have argued that in-person workers are simply doing more work, better than their remote colleagues. Dimon says long-term remote work just doesn’t work for most employees; while Benioff says workers in the office consistently perform better. Both the bank and the tech giant have waffled on return-to-office mandates, but both have yielded to a hybrid plan—at least for now.”

These claims are supported by data, as well. In fact, recent research shows that the U.S. is facing the biggest decline in worker productivity since 1948. It also suggests that remote workers miss important learning opportunities, and that interacting through a screen can make workers less likely to generate ideas.

On the other hand, many employees value the option of remote work. The Society for Human Resource Management’s 2022 State of the Workplace survey found that employees value the flexibility that remote organizations offer, allowing them greater autonomy, and remote workers report much higher levels of positive feelings toward their companies.

Even more interesting could be the nature of this disagreement. The HBR authors posit that “part of the disagreement seems to hinge on what people think counts as productivity.”

  • Employees:

“Employees tend to include commuting time in their mental calculation, and so they think not having to commute when they work from home counts as an increase in productivity.”

  • Managers

“Managers tend to ignore commuting time when they think about productivity: They just care about how much work is getting done each day.”

There may be additional layers managers and employees aren’t considering here. Over what length of time are managers (and employees) measuring productivity? And if managers are able to keep their remote/hybrid employees longer, does a more longitudinal perspective around productivity (and turnover costs) factor into managers’ equation?

The point is, employees and leaders each have a point. The truth is, employees want to work for a company with flexible work environments. Leaders want to produce and sustain the best possible productivity from their employees.

There is middle ground to all of this that can be found, and when you do, you strike productivity and retention gold.