Just a couple of years ago, the future of work-from-home (WFH) seemed assured. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to continuing operating, companies around the world allowed office workers to work remotely. Major companies including Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Zillow and Shopify announced plans to allow permanent remote work.
Until the COVID pandemic began in 2020, work-from-home programs had been gaining ground very slowly. The pandemic accelerated this progress by about 40 years!
Studies quickly claimed that at-home workers were actually more productive than their in-the-office counterparts1 2 3 4 5. Some studies also reported that workers put in more hours when working from home, due to less time being spent commuting.
The benefits of working from home seemed very clear!
- No daily commutes
- Living and working from lower-cost or more desirable communities
- Achieving a better balance of work and home responsibilities
- Reduced expenses for office space
- Higher employee satisfaction and retention
- Improvements in productivity
But surprisingly, as the pandemic waned, attitudes started to shift. Companies began to order employees back to the office several days per week (a “hybrid” work model). Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously said, “I don’t know how you build great management virtually.”
Additional studies7 8 surfaced showing a decrease in productivity among work-from-home employees.
However, the forced return to the office may be driven more by management attitudes than by actual productivity data.
A study conducted by Microsoft6 in September 2022 found that “85% of leaders say that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive” and “49% of managers of hybrid workers struggle to trust their employees to do their best work.”
This lack of trust in worker productivity has led to what Microsoft researchers termed productivity paranoia, where leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings, and other activity metrics have increased.
Another survey, conducted by Citrix, found that half of all business leaders believe that when employees are working “out of sight,” they don’t work as hard.
In addition to issues of productivity, manager’s report that “Supervising, training, mentoring, and building firm culture is much harder” with fully remote workers than with workers who come in a few times per week7.
Today, a plurality of companies seem to be settling on a hybrid model, requiring office employees to be onsite several days per week. This model offers some of the advantages of full-time WFH programs, but doesn’t allow employees to work far from the office, or allow companies to take advantage of lower salaries in other parts of the country. A few companies have committed to permanent, full-time remote employment. This can be a significant advantage in recruiting and retaining employees who prefer remote work.
There are many studies and statistics about work-from-home, and the conclusions differ. One thing is clear: WFH has become a significant part of the jobscape in the United States. According to Forbes9, as of July 2023, 12.7% of employees worked remotely full time, and 28.2% worked in a hybrid job (split between remote and in-office work).
So, Is WFH More or Less Productive?
As a data scientist, I can’t draw any conclusions about WFH productivity. I’ve reviewed the articles listed in the references, and many others. Most of the “studies” are informal surveys. All use different methodologies, ask different questions, and even have different definitions for productivity. It appears that work-from-home can be more productive than in-the-office work, and it can be less productive, depending on many factors.
As a manager, I believe that remote workers pose significant challenges, and require new skills. Management’s commitment to mastering these skills will be a big factor in determining if a remote workforce can be successful and productive.
Remote management is still evolving, but there are already a few key principles and techniques that have proven effective. None of these things should come as a surprise to a good manager. We are not re-inventing management – we’re simply adapting the things we already know to a different environment. But the specific skills and tools required to manage a remote workforce are changing. While many managers are resisting this change, the ability to lead remotely will be key to a management team’s success in the future.
Here are some of the best practices that have been established for remote management:
Make rules, policies, procedures, and expectations clear. Publish everything on an internal website, and review policies and procedures with employees regularly. Even terms like “complete tasks within two days” can be ambiguous when dealing with a distributed workforce, so don’t make assumptions.
Overcommunicate. Communication isn’t as effective when we can’t rely on social cues and body language, so double-down on communicating important information. Use websites, email, group meetings, and one-on-one meetings to convey and repeat important messages.
Facilitate informal communication. In a traditional office environment, employees often drop in on one another to ask quick questions or share ideas. It’s a little harder to make this happen in a remote environment. Two things are important:
- Overlapping hours (“core hours”). There should be days and times when everyone is expected to be working.
Don’t make this too stringent! If everyone is expected to be online M-F, 9:00-5:00, many of the advantages of remote work are lost. Instead, choose something like MWF, 9-12:00 and 1-5:00. Most employees will still be available at other times, but outside the core hours, they’re free to run errands or take breaks.
- Select an online chat tool for everyone to use. It must be easy to fire off a quick question, or to set up a phone conversation or video chat if more discussion is needed. Small companies often start with Skype, while larger companies often graduate to Slack.
Use collaborative tools. Collaborative tools allow team members to contribute to shared projects, to give input and feedback on one another’s work, to merge work from several team members, and to “release” finished work-products.
This is an area where the software industry is well ahead of other businesses. Some of the largest software projects in the world have been run remotely for decades. This includes the Linux kernel, an open-source operating system consisting of over 27 million lines of code, contributed by 13,500 remote developers from over 1,000 companies!
Schedule brainstorming. Despite what proponents of in-the-office work will tell you, brainstorming and problem solving rarely happen in informal hallway meetings. Such conversations are more likely to be about kids’ ball teams, or favorite recipes. Actual brainstorming and problem solving usually take place when people meet specifically to discuss ideas. But some studies have shown that online meetings are less likely to produce creative solutions10 11.
To foster creativity, schedule meetings specifically for brainstorming, and stimulate creativity with color, humor, games and challenges. Skip the PowerPoint presentation!
Encourage social interactions. Employees work and communicate better with one another when they have a sense of personal connection. Use a variety of tools to help team members connect with one another. This can include personal profile pages on an internal website, a group chat application, and even online social meetings. (I know of one company that has a weekly online “beer bust.”)
Track progress and productivity. Productivity is an issue, whether employees are in the office or remote. Use tools to track key productivity metrics for individuals and team. It’s important to position this correctly. Don’t look at tracking tools as monitoring employees. Rather, share the data and discuss it regularly with team members. Use it as a tool for identifying problems early, and working together to solve them.
Plan for onboarding. Managers often comment that it’s very hard to bring new employees up to speed in a remote environment. Successfully incorporating new people into a remote team requires planning.
- Make sure all important information is online, and that someone is available to answer questions or clarify written information. Update the information when there are questions.
- Have new employees “shadow” a more senior employee while they come up to speed.
- Assign a mentor to each new employees, and schedule regular chats with the new employee and the mentor.
Understand issues. Managers should always be understanding of issues faced by employees. Some unique challenges that surface in a remote workforce include:
- Distractions while working at home.
- Poor understanding of tasks and objectives.
- Lack of communication with teammates.
- “Video burnout.”
- Feelings of isolation, stress, or depression arising from remote work.
Give employees opportunities to talk about concerns and issues, and work with them to find solutions.
Be ready to support home office conversions. Recognize that not everyone has a suitable place to work at home, and have a policy to provide assistance. This could range from payments for noise-cancelling headphones, to office furniture, to computer loans.
Invest in training. Remote work requires new management and communication skills, as well as specific knowledge of technologies, tools, and techniques. Investing in training is important to ensure success.
The COVID pandemic greatly accelerated the adoption of work-from-home, but it has now been accepted into the mainstream employment market. Studies show that employees strongly prefer the flexibility of WFH.
In July 2023, 11% of the job listings posted on LinkedIn were fully remote, but those listings attracted 50% of all applications12. In 2023, an incredible 98% of all workers expressed a desire to work from home at least part time9, and 32% said they would take a pay cut to work remotely.
Companies that learn how to build and manage a remote workforce will have a significant competitive advantage in hiring and retaining staff, as well as substantial savings on office space and salaries.
About the Author
Robert Nicholson has managed distributed, remote, and off-shore staff for over two decades. More recently, he has taught entirely remote classes and advised remote graduate students as an instructor at San Jose State University.
- Study: Teleworkers More Productive—Even When Sick. Aliah D. Wright. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). February 13, 2015.
- Is a mobile workforce your business’s best strategy for boosting productivity? Avast. November 14, 2018.
- State of Remote Work 2021. OWL Labs. September, 2021.
- Executives feel the strain of leading in the ‘new normal.’ Future Forum. October 2022.
- Working from Home Increases Productivity. Shayna Waltower. Business News Daily. May 26, 2023.
- Hybrid Work Is Just Work. Are We Doing It Wrong? Microsoft. September 22, 2022.
- WFH’s Staunchest Proponents Just Dropped a Bomb: Fully Remote Workers Are Officially Less Productive. Jane Thier. Fortune. July 6, 2023.
- The Evolution of Working from Home. Jose Maria Barrero, Steven J. Davis, Nicholas Bloom. Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). July, 2023.
- Remote Work Statistics And Trends In 2023. Kathy Haan. Forbes Advisor. June 12, 2023.
- Workers Think Less Creatively in Zoom Meetings, Study Finds. Iam Sample. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). June 8, 2022.
- Thinking Inside the Box: Why Virtual Meetings Generate Fewer Ideas. Edmund L. Andrews. Stanford Graduate School of Business. June 29, 2022.
- Remote and hybrid jobs are making a comeback. Jennifer Liu. CNBC. July 17, 2023.