As the pandemic progressed, more and more workers shifted to working remotely. At the height of lockdown, more than 70% of the US workforce was toiling from home. It began to look as if remote working arrangements would become the new normal. Headlines proclaimed that COVID-19 would result in the death of the office. Major corporations announced plans to keep workers at home permanently. Others were entertaining a phased transition to remote work.
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But as the first wave of the pandemic began to wind down and signs of an economic rebound emerged, support for remote working began to decline. Soon, companies were setting deadlines for return to the office and coupling them with veiled insinuations about what might happen if workers remained at home.
Productivity Boost or Bust?
The conflicting positions on return to the office correlate with a host of inconclusive research on the effects of working from home on productivity. As companies move forward, it seems as if they are just making their best guess as to whether they will get the best efforts out of employees who remain at home or from those who come back to the office.
But the data make one thing clear: Not all jobs are well-suited for working from home. In particular, those in jobs requiring a high degree of collaboration find that their productivity and job satisfaction suffer as a result. This means companies must address decreased collaboration when formulating their future plans for balancing office work and telecommuting.
Before delving into the numbers, it is important to distinguish between remote work arrangements for company employees and voluntary remote work professions such as freelancers. While the rise of the gig economy has created a boom in freelance work, with freelancers contributing more than $1.2 trillion to the US economy last year, they are unlikely to ever be in a client’s office. The productivity of freelancers is another issue entirely.
There is no shortage of data from surveys and studies about the effect of the pandemic on worker productivity. But, of course, as with all data of this type, the question is which to trust. According to one recent survey by Deloitte, over half of the workers in the UK believed that their colleagues’ productivity had improved or, at worst, remained at the same level following the first lockdown.
In addition, a study of Western European companies by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania showed that business leaders believed their employees were either equally or more productive when working remotely. Numerous studies also indicate a strong preference among employees for remote work options.
There are many reasons productivity may increase with remote work arrangements, including increased job satisfaction, less stress due to commuting, and a better work-life balance. For women, in particular, remote work has helped balance the demands of their jobs with family life.
According to a 2020 paper by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), US hiring managers noted a short-term productivity boost from remote work. The OECD also highlights productivity increases at German, Portuguese and Chinese firms that either relied heavily on telecommuting or allowed their employees greater choice in determining where and when they would work.
But many company executives disagree. The CEO of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, made no bones about his distaste for remote work arrangements, calling them an “aberration” that companies should quickly correct. His counterpart at JP Morgan, Jamie Dimon, raised more specific objections, noting that firm cultures rely on face-to-face interactions and that collaboration and learning need personal contact.
Their colleagues across industries agreed, with 90% of C-suite level management and 78% of lower-level management suggesting that productivity was their primary concern with remote workers.
Working on Your Own
With so much data seemingly against them, why are these executives so resistant to remote work arrangements? A deeper dive into the data proves they may be correct about the adverse impact of remote work on team productivity, collaboration and culture.
Remote work can be an excellent solution for employees who tend to work on their own anyway. Software coders are a good example. Essentially, home-based coders are analogous to freelancers. Indeed, there has been an explosion in the number of freelance coders over the past year as people looked to replace jobs lost during the pandemic with freelance work. With the average online training course taking around 15 hours to complete, these transitions were simple and frequent.
When the task is coding, employees can be more productive working in their familiar and comfortable home environment and choosing their hours. But when tasks involve collaboration, creativity and brainstorming, such as the software design and development process, remote work simply doesn’t cut it.
A 2020 study by Lucidspark shows that it is not just managers who have concerns about the impact of remote work on collaboration. While many remote workers believed their overall productivity and that of their colleagues suffered, they were far more likely to highlight decreased collaboration.
In the Lucidspark survey, 75% of remote workers indicated at least some negative effects on collaboration. Breaking this down further, 37% agreed that meetings were less collaborative when conducted remotely. To overcome these problems and reinitiate collaborative project work, a significant number of employees (17%) violated company policies and met in person.
It is not just the overall collaborative nature of the work that suffers when employees are remote. A quarter of the respondents in the Lucidspark survey agreed that remote work decreased their creativity. Among those, nearly half attributed the creative decline to an inability to collaborate effectively.
The lack of personal interactions also contributes to an increase in job dissatisfaction for workers who previously had highly interactive positions. Remote work led to many employees feeling isolated and siloed. This may be one factor contributing to the stunning increase in US workers quitting their jobs and instead pursuing careers as self-employed freelancers, which has become an increasingly viable option for experienced workers seeking more flexible working arrangements.
Remote work arrangements will continue to increase in popularity for many reasons, including the much-needed flexibility to care for family members during and after the pandemic. So how do companies ensure that they can give their employees flexibility without losing much-needed collaboration?
Hybrid solutions are one avenue organizations may consider, and several companies are now implementing them. Requiring workers to be in the office for two or three days a week facilitates collaborative in-person meetings and allows employees more flexibility to deal with home and family issues.
It is also essential that companies find tools that increase collaboration with remote employees. This means more than just having video conferencing platforms. Instead, businesses need to avail themselves of virtual brainstorming tools, such as virtual whiteboards and mind-mapping tools. Generating engagement during virtual meetings is crucial for effective teamwork.
Collaboration is essential for businesses and their employees to succeed, and finding the right balance between working remotely and teamwork will require some effort.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.