There have been lots of articles on remote work since the pandemic started in 2020. It is a topic that continues to show up in news articles and there is a big divide between those who are proponents of remote work and those who say everyone needs to be back in the office. I wanted to write an article on the topic myself, because there are biases in what I’m going to call the “Great Remote Work Debate” when we could all benefit from neutral analysis. Some articles push for in person work, citing that productivity is down, and that leaders can’t find their workers when they need them without consideration for the workforce needs for flexibility and how that may impact engagement. Articles written by businesses who stand to gain from remote work because they have products to sell in support of remote work, tend to be in favor of keeping remote work. We should be paying attention to the authors and leaders who are speaking on the subject of remote work and asking ourselves what their motives really are, in my opinion. In order to write this blog, I have been reading everything I can on the subject and using my own experiences working with clients to form the opinions I present below.
Part of the Great Debate is whether or not remote work helps or hinders productivity. From what I can tell, no one has conducted any kind of real research study, with controls for variables, for any of us to know the real answer to this question. Most of the articles I see are based on opinion, using “data” that is specific to company’s best interests and bottom lines. Some of the articles are from reputable sources, but when you start following the trail of who the authors are and what their interests are, you can see they might be biased or have special interests as well.
Well, you say, the bottom line IS the biggest indicator of productivity, right? No, not really. The bottom line indicates profitability, which is not the same as productivity. Human productivity is the measure of output, which is not always the same as profitability, AND human output is directly dependent on how employees are treated. So, my assertion here is that employee output is more a factor of overall workplace culture and satisfaction level. There is a variety of factors, such as workplace and cultural dynamics as well as the complexity of humans, that all play into human interaction and ultimately work satisfaction. It is not just linked to being in the office together in person, though that may be a factor at times.
Also, for those of you who need data and numbers to know if productivity is up or down, just check on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and you will see the latest number as of August 3, 2023, showing that the “non-farm sector labor productivity increased 3.7 percent in the second quarter of 2023.” Furthermore, there was an increase of 2.4% in output, but the number of hours workers worked decreased by 1.3%. What gives? Many employers have moved to shorter workweeks, which accounts for the decrease in hours worked; however, unemployment has remained the same, and yet productivity is up, On aggregate, productivity appears to have steadily increased since 2020 with some ebb and flow in the data (like all types of metrics).
But, you say, so many employers are asking remote workers to come back to work in person, could that be why productivity is still increasing? Well, no, not really. A recent article published by Timeular, a time tracking company, called “How Does Remote Working Affect Productivity?” answers the question. According to the data, 77% of remote workers report being more productive when working from home. Another report from Avast Mobile, a cyber safety company, showed that working in the office decreased productivity—and that article was from 2018, before the pandemic and all the chatter about remote work. There are countless articles out there, from lots of sources, regarding productivity and the issues that exist working remotely and working in the office. In my opinion, the bottom line, as consultants who deal with employee behavior every day, is that some people are more productive in the office around other people and some people are more productive at home with fewer interruptions.
But wait, you say, if the issue is workplace culture, remote work is affecting that negatively, right? Here again, there is variability. When it comes to company culture, the strength of the culture resides in the strength of the leader’s ability to coalesce their teams. It makes no difference if it is a remote environment or an in-person environment if the leader simply cannot bring their team together. I will further assert that the real “thing” about remote work is that if there are leadership and management issues if there are cultural issues, if there is a lack of equity to begin with, remote work will shine a bright, ugly light on those issues. AND 9 times out of 10, leaders don’t want to face that the issues were there to begin with and will simply blame remote work as the cause.
According to U.C. Berkeley’s research on teamwork, what makes an effective team are factors such as making sure individual employees’ ideas are valued, having an awareness of peoples’ feelings, ensuring clarity in communication and facilitating open communication, having a set of shared values that drive goals, ensuring performance is evaluated using clear measures and agreed upon accomplishments. I would add trust to the list.
Not a single one of those factors has anything to do with working remotely or in person. Is it easier to achieve some of the above factors in person? Maybe at first when no one knows each other, it helps to see each other’s body language and energy. And maybe a particular team is more productive during in-person meetings. And, maybe in some cases, a team that is used to working remotely is suddenly not productive when in-person because they want to connect with each other. I have seen both scenarios in my work. Again, there is variability. But can strong teams be built just by working remotely? I would assert that they can be from my own experience and in working with clients who primarily work remotely, and I would say that they have strong leaders who create a positive culture and connection.
To be clear, I am neither a proponent for or against remote work. I see the value and benefits of working remotely, but I am also well aware of the pitfalls and issues that affect workplaces, especially when the work itself does not lend itself to the remote model. I am a proponent of good leadership, finding ways to bring people together, increasing INCLUSIVITY for everyone at all levels, EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE, understanding human beings and their complexity, and being strategic.
Additionally, people need flexibility in today’s workplace to be productive. Flexibility can look like a lot of things, not just remote work, though remote work can be a viable way to allow for added flexibility. Work culture and human beings are complicated and the Great Remote Work Debate itself is completely flawed as it attempts to answer complex questions by pointing the finger at one issue and using that one issue as the sum total of all the causes for or against productivity and culture (and really many other things). It is not that simple, and that is why we keep having this conversation.
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