Are employees more productive working remotely?

Leaders are struggling the most with the shift to hybrid work with many finding it a challenge to have confidence that employees are being productive. It’s been termed ‘productivity paranoia’, writes Cathy Hendry.

Three years on from the pandemic and the introduction of widespread remote working, the workforce is still very divided on the costs and benefits. In New Zealand, we are starting to see a shift back towards more in-office days, but is remote working really that bad for productivity? Apparently, it depends on who you ask.

Most studies have shown that employees are more productive when offered flexible or hybrid working.

In fact, prior to the pandemic, a study that featured in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found a 13 percent increase in performance for a group of call centre employees who were randomly assigned to work from home for nine months.

There is also the added benefit of cost savings from not needing to commute into the office every day, which has been a big benefit for those struggling with the high costs of living. Employees have also found flexible work practices have allowed more quality time with family and, in most cases, better work-life balance. 

However, leaders are struggling the most with the shift to hybrid work with many finding it a challenge to have confidence that employees are being productive. 

Microsoft released a recent study in September 2022, where it found that 49 percent of managers of hybrid workers “struggle to trust their employees to do their best work”. 

Microsoft researchers termed this “productivity paranoia”, where leaders are fearing lost productivity due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings and other activity metrics have in fact increased. 

According to a survey by Future Forum, this scepticism towards work from home tends to come from older leaders in their 50s and 60s. Leaders under 50 are much more accepting of hybrid and remote work and are more likely to focus on how to do it well.

The belief that employees in the office are more productive isn’t well founded; while an employee may be sitting at their desk they may not be actually working or focused on anything useful.

Ultimately, a poor or unmotivated employee is likely to have the same level of output regardless of whether they are remote or in the office. 

However, ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all or perfect solution for organisations. There will always be roles or industries which will never be able to offer fully flexible or remote work.

Those organisations that can offer remote work also need to ensure employees spend some time in the office to foster collaboration and maintain their company culture. 

While technologies have allowed for better engagement online, in-person collaboration is more effective at generating new ideas and sharing knowledge. 

Certainly, this will continue to be a contentious and widely debated issue for some time and it is clear that we are all learning as we navigate this workplace evolution. 

It seems some leaders are going to need to challenge any pre-conceived views that employees need to be present and in the office to guarantee productivity and instead consider how to effectively manage their staff on outputs. 

More regular catch-ups and setting clear expectations will help ensure employees are meeting expectations and remaining productive regardless of whether they are in the office or remote.   

Cathy Hendry is the CEO at Strategic Pay. 

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