- There are conflicting reports on WFH productivity – and good reasons to explain it.
- Some high-profile companies are embracing WFH for the long term, while others have already rejected it.
- Rather than viewing this as question of whether or not WFH is here to stay, we should be seeking to understand implications of the nature of where and how people effectively get work done.
Covid-19 has accelerated many trends already emerging long before the pandemic – including digital transformations, shifting consumer behaviors, and expanding remote work – among others. Estimates suggest the percent of employees working from home (WFH) has more than doubled since the onset of the pandemic, and many are predicting a large part will continue to WFH permanently. However, is this a smart move to ensure the successful future of companies and their employees?
WFH Benefits Both Companies and Employees
Companies across industries report they will be remote or stay more remote than before, with tech and finance especially favorable toward the shift. Amazon, Google/Alphabet and Microsoft have plans to continue WFH at least into the fall, Twitter and Facebook have declared their employees can work from home forever, and many other companies have approved extended WFH timeframes. Financial and insurance companies including Citigroup, HSBC, Morgan Stanley and Nationwide have all told employees that remote working arrangements will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
From a business perspective, there are several strong arguments for allowing employees to WFH. In the near-term, it promotes health and safety and avoids potential Covid-19 lawsuits, and in the long-term organizations can hire from broader talent pools to achieve a more diverse workforce, and save up to $11,000 a year for every employee who works remotely at least part time.
From an employee perspective, according to many surveys, people like working from home. About half plan to do it more often after Covid-19. We’ve seen data suggesting both productivity and job satisfaction increase, and employees can save both the time and money spent on commuting.
At first glance, it seems obvious that organizations that continue to permit WFH will have a competitive advantage. But as the months have passed in this forced WFH experiment, we’ve also seen contradictory data pointing toward uneven productivity, burnout, declining collaboration and negative effects of social isolation. So, which is it?
“Panic Productivity” Was at its Highest at the Beginning of the Pandemic
First, it depends on who you survey, of course. Some companies have gone to great lengths to make sure employees have what they need to WFH. Some people still lack a proper workspace or reliable broadband. Organizations that aren’t willing or able to meet employees’ basic WFH needs aren’t likely to get the hoped-for benefits beyond initial cost-savings.
Second, it depends on when you surveyed people. While the initial adjustment to WFH meant technical issues and distractions for some, it also delivered a highly appreciated sense of freedom for those who hadn’t had the option before. In the first period of Covid-19-driven WFM, we saw from several surveys showing significant productivity gains. In the second quarter of 2020, labor productivity was reported to be the highest in decades.
In an example of what some have called “panic productivity”, a case study by Humanyze found significantly more people working 10+ hour days in the weeks following the initial lockdown. Employees afraid of losing their jobs wanted to demonstrate their value to superiors or felt a strong need to pitch in at a higher level during tough times. As layoffs and furloughs mounted, remaining employees who had to pick up the slack put in extra hours to get the work done, often grateful to still have a paycheck.
In addition, some employees had fewer distractions at home compared to the office and reported improvement in their ability to focus on their work. Without commutes or anywhere to go people had time on their hands and filled it with work.
While working in the office forced the same routine on everyone, WFH gave people the chance to control their workday to optimize their productivity – whether that meant getting up early or answering emails late at night – or both – while taking time in the middle of the day to attend to personal or family matters.
Issues that Challenge Long-Term WFH Productivity
Despite these factors driving up productivity in recent months, there are signs that productivity and performance in the WFH setting may trend back toward baseline, and the challenges of a remote workforce are becoming apparent.
These issues and others have already prompted some high-profile companies to commit to a return to at least a partial return to the office.
First, people may be starting to burn out. Without the physical boundaries between office and home, many find it hard to mentally rest from work pressures, and burnout carries real costs for employers.
Data protection and device security issues, especially as an increasing number of employees are using their own mobile devices to handle company business, remain a concern for many organizations.
In addition, changes in communications patterns during WFH may be starting to hinder productivity and performance in at least three important ways:
- Work sub-cultures are dominating. There is some evidence that team cultures or sub-cultures are beginning to dominate as remote teams have become more isolated from other areas of the organization. This may be good or bad, but it’s important that the organization’s intended culture doesn’t get lost since it’s a critical driver for long-term success.
- Strong ties are getting stronger, and weak ties are getting weaker. Communication and the exchange of information is taking place within a tighter, smaller circle of coworkers than before. While we tend to get our core work done with a few colleagues we talk with frequently (our “strong ties”), those colleagues we speak with less often (our “weak ties”) – whom we used to meet in the hallway or in the breakroom – are important in other ways. Weak ties connect us to a broader group of people with different perspectives, roles and networks. Those connections can help prevent and break down silos, as well as spark creativity and innovation.
One analysis conducted by Humanyze found that normally people spent about 45% of their time interacting with their five strongest ties prior to Covid-19. In the first few months of lockdown, that figure exceeded 60%. They found that weak ties had deteriorated, as employees’ contact with more distant colleagues dropped by 30%. And, in a case study likely typical of what has happening, informal interactions decreased by 14% during the transition to remote work and have stayed at that level.
- Social capital may be eroding. Social capital, which refers to the resources available resulting from networks of relationships, was built up over the years from time spent face to face – in meetings, social events and at the watercooler. Some theorize that the surprisingly successful transition to remote work occurred because of those existing relationships. But what happens when relationships built up over time no longer have live interaction to sustain them? They begin to erode. If our current productivity is up because we’re investing less time in maintaining professional networks, what will that mean in the months and years ahead? And what about the younger employees who have barely begun to build their networks? Pre-pandemic wisdom said that onsite employees got better assignments and were viewed as more productive and better-liked. Will that translate to those who had stronger pre-pandemic networks having a big advantage over newer hires?
And finally, some types of employee training and development may fall short. Just as many parents are questioning whether the online instruction of their children is as effective as in-person teaching, some types of professional development may suffer as well. Research shows that online learning is broadly used successfully for many types of training, but interpersonal skills and leadership training may still benefit from a blended approach. And that leaves aside the missed opportunities for mentoring and informal learning that may not occur as often in the remote setting.
Leaders Have to Address the Challenges of Remote Work
So, should leaders get people back to the office asap? Or is keeping people remote the way to go? It depends. We do know that few say they want to work remotely 100% of the time; that most people want and need at least occasional face-to-face interaction. WFH allows many people to shape their own best, most productive way of working. We don’t know how long the pandemic will render it difficult to make a full return to the office, or when the next pandemic may put us right back in a similar position to today.
What is certain is that leaders should be thinking about how they want to address the challenges of remote work now and into the future. Whether organizations keep their staff mainly remote or create a hybrid workforce, these issues will come into play. Rather than viewing this as question of whether or not WFH is here to stay, we should be seeking to understand implications of the nature of where and how individuals and the larger organization effectively get work done and how to support them. More on that in my next blog.