HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development, Talent

Remote Work and the Productivity Debate

It may seem hard to believe, but it’s been nearly a year since millions of Americans swiftly transitioned from in-office work to remote work. Between the logistical challenges of setting up multiple remote offices for individual teams, the difficulty of providing close supervision, and the lack of opportunities for traditional team meetings, a huge concern of managers and employers throughout the country has been productivity.

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While many companies say they haven’t seen a dip in productivity, others have expressed concerns. But what specifically are these companies measuring? What evidence do they have to support their evaluation one way or the other?

In this feature, we dive deeper into the remote work productivity question. We reached out to industry experts, managers, and HR professionals to get their opinions on how productivity has really changed since the broad shift to remote work.

So Much Depends on the Employee

It’s probably not a surprise to managers that some staff maintain—or even improve—productivity better than others. The thought of some staff being left to their own devices in a home office likely had their managers cringing and losing sleep.

Individual potential for remote work success is one of the primary reasons many companies avoided broad remote work policies before the pandemic. Most employees may prefer remote work, but it’s not necessarily the case that most can be successful working remotely.

Disciplined, self-starters have greatest chance of success. First and foremost, productivity when working remotely depends on those who can self-manage.

“The success of remote work primarily comes down to the type of individual and their roles,” says Bert Miller, CEO of MRINetwork. “It works well for highly disciplined employees and highly technical positions that can be done from anywhere and delivered successfully against effective project management methodologies.”

Newer and younger staff at a disadvantage. JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon was an early and prominent critic of remote work’s impact on productivity, and he called out younger employees in particular as an area of concern.

The argument made by Dimon and others is that these relatively new staff are missing out on opportunities for informal learning, job shadowing, and relationship-building that will impact their long-term success.

As with anything, experience helps. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced their hands, many companies across the country had already allowed many staff to work remotely. Even for those who still came into the office, the same telecommunications tools used by remote staff were frequently leveraged in collaboration with colleagues.

Familiarity with these tools and previous experience working remotely have helped many workers hit the ground running when it comes to widespread remote work.

“The workers who stay the most productive are experienced remote workers, especially knowledge workers or those in fields where they are normally self-guided and on the computer all day,” says Sander Tamm, founder and CEO of E-Student.

“It’s helpful if these workers have regular online engagement with teams by collaborating on projects. Knowledge workers, and others who are largely self-guided, will continue to produce at about the same rate as before,” Tamm says.

The Nature and Complexity of the Work Matter

One of the biggest flaws with making broad pronouncements on productivity is that it lumps all work together. For example, a marketing company might see diminished productivity from a creative team responsible for developing advertising campaigns but steady or even improved productivity from staff tasked with the administrative work of compiling customer-facing presentations from that creative input.

“In 2020, we noticed a drop in employee productivity and self-organization,” says Chris Bolz, founder and CEO of Coara. Bolz believes there is definitely a distinction between routine, mundane work and more complex tasks when it comes to remote work’s impact on productivity.

“As we found out this was mainly caused due to them working remotely and dealing with mental and emotional exhaustion caused by the lockdowns,” Bolz says. He notes that while mundane work productivity stayed the same, productivity related to more complex types of work was impacted by employee work/life balance.

“While working remotely has its numerous benefits, we noticed that one of the reasons for the changes in complex work productivity was also impacted by borders between personal and professional life becoming blurry,” says Bolz.

Miller points to other complex types of work and interactions that have become more difficult during the pandemic and an uptick in remote work—specifically, sales, strategy, business development, and creative tasks.

“Fast-paced environments can also create issues because you spend time chasing people down versus just solving a problem with someone down the hall,” Miller says. “I have seen that being next to someone you can solve several problems in five minutes that would take half a day to track someone down and get time on the calendar.”

Morale Is Key

Many companies that noticed improvements, or at least steady productivity, early in the pandemic have seen productivity drop as remote work has dragged on. Key reasons for this are isolation and morale. Even employees who generally consider themselves to be introverts find they need at least some level of human interaction in their daily lives to help them feel grounded.

Additionally, the anxiety created by the uncertainty around the pandemic, as well as the many other events that added up to a wild 2020, has certainly had an impact on productivity. “Ultimately, happy and healthy employees create a successful business, so businesses must ensure their employees are set up for success,” says Jenna Anderson, CEO of AccessElite.

Productivity is a crucial measure of the well-being of any company, so it’s no surprise that it’s been a major concern of managers and companies across the country since the widespread shift to remote work. But productivity can be too broad a concept to provide any actionable insights on its own.

Companies need to look deeper at the specific changes their organizations have seen since shifting staff to remote work. If they’re positive changes, great!

If they’re negative changes in productivity, company leaders will need to determine whether they can be addressed by small tweaks or if their productivity challenges are simply a fundamental consequence of transitioning staff to remote work.

Those in this latter group should be anxious to get staff back into the office as quickly and safely as possible.

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