Study Finds Productivity Not Deterred by Shift to Remote Work

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer September 16, 2020
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man working from home

​Recent research shows that the skepticism many companies had about working from home may be eroding. Ninety-four percent of 800 employers surveyed by Mercer, an HR and workplace benefits consulting firm, said that productivity was the same as or higher than it was before the pandemic, even with their employees working remotely.

"Historically, there has been a perception in many organizations that if employees were not seen, they weren't working—or at least not as effectively as they would in the office," said Lauren Mason, a principal and senior consultant at Mercer. "And in most cases, this forced experiment around remote working as a result of COVID-19 has shattered those perceptions to prove that most employees can actually be trusted to get their work done from home. As organizations are thinking toward the longer term, they are looking at how they can execute flexibility at scale to deliver on the value of flexible working, like enhanced performance and productivity, a better employee experience, an expanded talent pool, and, in some cases, potentially reduced costs."

Remote-work advocates are not surprised at all by the findings. "For a long time, companies with strong remote-work programs have reported excellent productivity, and our own surveys year after year find that people who work remotely say they're more productive or as productive at home," said Brie Weiler Reynolds, career development manager and coach at FlexJobs, a Boulder, Colo.-based resources and jobs site for flexible and remote jobs. "What is most surprising about this is that productivity has remained strong amid the worst conditions for working remotely," she added. "Consider that remote workers during the pandemic have also had to deal with the intense stress of a worldwide global health crisis, and the compounded responsibilities of having children, partners, spouses or roommates at home, and yet they've been able to remain productive or actually increase their productivity."

Mason said that as employers first sent people home in reaction to the spread of the coronavirus in February and March, many faced challenges with getting employees the equipment they needed and optimizing their VPN networks to ensure connectivity. "Once these issues were resolved, it was smooth sailing for many," she said. "But this is an area to continue to monitor for sustainability. Other research is showing that employees are working three hours longer per day right now, so there is some question as to whether productivity per hour is actually declining, and these longer hours raise concerns around burnout."

Mason foresees that workers will continue to establish better remote-working practices and organizations will equip employees with new or better tools to work effectively, such as virtual collaboration technology. "As a result, a high risk for declining productivity in most organizations is not expected," she said.

Looking ahead, 83 percent of respondents said that even after the health crisis has passed, they plan to put more flexible work policies in place, such as allowing more people to work from home or letting them adjust their schedules.

"Workers have proven themselves more than capable of handling flexible work options during a crisis," Weiler Reynolds said. "Companies should continue to foster the sense of freedom and control that flexible work options provide and build strong flexible work programs. These programs are a smart way for companies to be prepared to handle any future emergencies. In addition to productivity, companies have talked about remote work's positive impact in areas like safety, cost savings, environmental impact, emergency preparedness, employee satisfaction and others. We have passed the tipping point where working from home will need to become a valid and important component of any healthy organization."    

Remote work will be especially critical in the near term for working parents with young children, as schools have either closed or are operating on split schedules. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both parents are working in 60 percent of families in the U.S.

According to Mercer, 60 percent of employers said they're letting parents adjust their schedules, with 22 percent saying they're letting parents temporarily shift to part-time status if needed. Another 37 percent are letting parents choose when they do those parts of their job that don't need to be done at any particular time or place, in order to better accommodate their caregiving responsibilities during the day.

Mason said sustaining this level of flexibility at scale will require a transformation of people, processes and infrastructure to ensure that employers maintain—or enhance—the employee experience in a flexible environment and deliver key outcomes such as engagement and productivity.

"First, employers must enable a strong foundation for flexible working through things like policy and governance, and leader and manager effectiveness," she said. "Then, they have to rethink people programs like talent acquisition and onboarding, which in most organizations were not designed around a remote workforce. They should consider how their flexible work strategy will impact where they source talent, or [how they manage] compensation, as people move to lower-cost labor markets. Another category is infrastructure, with key considerations around the workplace—the office, hubs and remote setup, as well as technology and security considerations. There are many implications as companies seek to execute more-permanent flexibility, and organizations will need to chart a path forward to ensure they achieve their intended objectives for flexible working."

Zillow Goes Remote

A growing set of companies, including Amazon, Capital One, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce and Siemens, have extended their remote-work plans (at least part time) into 2021, or even permanently. On July 29, online real estate marketplace Zillow joined that list.

Chief People Officer Dan Spaulding said about 90 percent of the workforce of 5,400 will have the flexibility to work from home permanently as an ongoing option. That's a sea change from where the company stood on the issue of remote work before the pandemic.

"We have historically discouraged employees from working from home, preferring face time and in-office collaboration versus virtual exchanges," Spaulding said. "Our old preferences have been debunked during the pandemic. These past few months have shed light on the resilience of Zillow employees—their unflagging drive and commitment to innovate and serve our customers and partners at the highest levels, regardless of changing work conditions. Since first closing our offices in March, our teams have evolved new and inspiringly creative ways to work together, support each other, and embrace the approximately 500 new employees we've onboarded, entirely remotely."

Spaulding said that the company's offices will remain open for people and teams to collaborate if needed.

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