Why asking the question “Are workers more productive working at home or working in the office” is the modern-day Hare and Tortoise story

There has been an outpouring of studies, in recent weeks, with conflicting verdicts on whether workers are more or less productive when working from home.  Reed Hastings, the Chairman of Netflix weighed in last week claiming he saw “no benefits” to remote working, whilst behavioural psychologists have voiced concerns over damage to mental health from workers isolating.

Meanwhile the BBC reported on a study of 1000 employees separated into two groups, finding the at-home workers to be 13% more productive (due to reduced commute times and fewer distractions).  Other studies have variously found increases in productivity amounting to anything from an additional 5 to 17 days per year, whilst Forbes cited a study that tracked almost 50% increase in productivity of remote workers.

Remote work and “enforced shelter remote work” are not the same thing

Businesses that are obsessed with the answer are either looking to validate the fact they want to keep people in the office, or are already remote and want to spread their message with biblical zeal.  The problem is, everyone is talking about remote work and the current shelter-in-place enforced remote work as if they’re the same thing.  But they’re not.  Yes, Covid19 has catalysed many organizations into working remotely and galvanized some of them into doing so long-term, but the restrictions enforced home-working carries, make it a very poor cousin indeed to “normal” remote work.

Fundamentally, assessing levels of productivity in home working, whilst we’re in an enforced lockdown is preposterous.  Everything is different at the moment, our world has changed – companies that worked 100% remote before lockdown didn’t work like this.  They came together to collaborate as teams, they had in-person creative brainstorming sessions. They celebrated wins together and had annual events. They met with their clients. They went on holiday – proper holidays where they weren’t in fear of their futures so were able to enjoy a decent break, and they came back refreshed and recharged.

Remote Workers: More or less productive than in-office workers?

But back to the point in question – are remote workers more productive at home or in the office, setting aside these Covid anomalies which are just making everybody miserable, office or no.  The fact is, it still remains a fairly meaningless question and, in scientific terms, the idea of being able to compare productivity in such wildly conflicting personal set-ups would not pass any kind of science methodology or peer reviewed evaluations; everyone’s personal circumstances, work approach and remote set-up is different.

The feel, set-up, layout, resources and access to/interaction with colleagues in your work environment will undoubtedly play a part in influencing productivity.  And they’re so different, from office to office – indeed, with personalities with wildly different management styles, it can feel very different in the same office, from team to team.  In personal home set ups, there’s even less common denominators – the mature worker with a dedicated home office is likely more able to work effectively than a young graduate without a dedicated workspace or a parent trying to work at home around home-schooling their children.  Even within these broad demographics, there will be a whole spectrum of variants – the worker who has the perfect set-up but is sharing bandwidth with 10 others, or the employee who doesn’t have dedicated workspace but works incredibly effectively late at night when their flat is empty.

How not where: start by re-imagining what’s needed to achieve objectives, rather than focusing on where that happens

Instead of asking “which is more productive – remote working or in-office work”, businesses should be asking what system-level changes are needed to work effectively.  We shouldn’t be questioning here versus there, so-much as reimagining what is needed to achieve objectives.  With the right systems, procedures, teams and accountability processes in place, the “where” of our work should follow naturally from the nature of the work, not be our starting point.

So how do businesses begin to evaluate the kind of changes they will need to make in their organizations, to empower their workers to be as effective and productive as possible, wherever they’re working?   They start by switching mindset – away from the endlessly pointless and utterly meaningless question over “where” people work most effectively – toward an open and trust-centric approach which embraces flexibility and focuses on output.  Effective communication is key, and starts with an audit of current systems and employee attitudes and experiences – what do your teams need? What have been the positives of working remotely and how do we continue to embrace these going forward whilst reducing or eliminating the negatives.  Enforced remote working has been an incredibly powerful catalyst in many ways, giving organizations a taste of how it might work, but it has also been dangerous in that the taste is not authentic to real remote working.  Even those companies that are working remotely, permanently have likely not enjoyed the lack of interaction created by shelter-in-home policies.

What tools and  technologies do we need to empower our teams, create accountability and facilitate communication?  What frameworks and support are required, how do we manage teams remotely, effectively and how do we do that in an adaptable way?  What degree of flexibility provides optimum opportunities to innovate from bouncing ideas off each other in-person, and productivity in terms of being able to work for periods of time un-interrupted.  These are the questions that will help us dictate the “where” of our work, not obsessions over whether the hare or the tortoise is quicker when neither of them are even following the same course.

If you’re interested in how businesses are managing the transition to remote work, don’t forget to download our whitepaper “Remote Work: The CEO Perspective”

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