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Does Remote Work Hurt Productivity?

Two experts debate the issue.

Two speech bubbles, one with "Yes" and the other with "No" inside it.

Yes. The lack of socialization and structure can be harmful.

Josh Rock

Remote work can reduce productivity, depending on the individual’s personality and role.

I personally thrive in a connected office environment. I like having my collaborators close and available. My HR partner is the opposite. She benefits from having the flexibility of working ­wherever and whenever suits her needs. 

Of course, remote work isn’t feasible for many roles. For example, truck drivers and mechanics can’t do their work from home.

While remote work has become increasingly popular among employees, some business leaders are pushing for employees to return to the office. Here are several reasons why remote work isn’t always the best option.

Less collaboration. We’ve heard about the large corporations that have pushed to bring workers back to the office, believing they’re missing opportunities for collaboration, which in turn can spark innovation. I can think of many instances where a chance encounter in the hallway has led to collaborative problem-solving and even career changes. 

Microsoft’s shift to companywide remote work during the pandemic resulted in work groups becoming more siloed, according to a study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. The collaboration time spent with other work groups dropped by about 25 percent from the pre-pandemic level, making it harder for employees to acquire and share new information.

Another study published in that journal found that videoconferencing inhibits the production of creative ideas.

In addition, some managers just aren’t equipped to lead a remote team. HR professionals know that managers who have difficulty leading will have a negative impact on the connectedness, productivity and career progression of their team members.

Increased loneliness. Working from home also can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, which can negatively impact productivity. A 2020 Buffer study found that 20 percent of remote workers reported loneliness as their biggest struggle with working ­remotely. The social element is an important driver of productivity and happiness, especially for Generation Z and Millennial workers, according to 2021 research by Kadence. Researchers there found that continuing to work from home is likely to exacerbate the social disconnect for younger workers and negatively impact their productivity levels.

Meanwhile, a 2021 study by Sierra Tucson, a residential treatment center in Tucson, Ariz., found that 20 percent of U.S. workers admitted to using recreational drugs while working remotely.

Increased distractions. Like many parents, I’ve been interrupted by one of my kids while speaking in a virtual meeting. Working from home can lead to more distractions than working in an office environment. A survey conducted by TSheets found that 66 percent of remote workers reported being distracted while working from home, and 25 percent said they were distracted by household chores. These distractions can lead to decreased productivity—or require work to be done at a later time. 

More technical issues. Working remotely requires a reliable internet connection and access to necessary software and tools. Technical difficulties can lead to frustration and lost time. A study by Ooma found that 60 percent of remote workers have experienced technical difficulties while working remotely, with the average worker spending 23 minutes per day dealing with technical issues.

While remote work has some benefits, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. It doesn’t work for everyone, and it can reduce productivity. It’s important to weigh the pros and cons carefully and find the right balance between remote and in-­person work to optimize productivity and benefit the company and the individual.

Josh Rock is the talent acquisition manager for Nuss Truck & Equipment in Rochester, Minn., and a moderator of @JobHuntChat, a job advice chat on Twitter.

No. Employees work more efficiently when given flexibility.

Ralph Kellogg, SHRM-SCP

Most employees embrace working from home. While business leaders sometimes bristle at the thought of employees being out of sight, workers often feel more autonomous when working ­remotely. It allows them to function more efficiently and effectively.

Moreover, being remote allows employees to work in comfortable settings that encourage creativity and are tailored to their individual work styles.

Employees with location flexibility report 4 percent higher productivity scores than fully in-­office workers. Those with full schedule flexibility find they are 29 percent more productive and have a 53 percent greater ability to focus, compared to workers with no ability to shift their schedules, according to a 2022 Future Forum survey.

Reduced productivity isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s leaders’ lack of trust that paints working from home in a negative light. Surveys conducted by Microsoft and Citrix showed that almost 50 percent of leaders don’t trust their employees to work as hard when they work from home. Microsoft researchers described this level of mistrust as “productivity paranoia.”

A 2020 study by Robert Half found that 68 percent of professionals who transitioned to a remote environment worked longer than eight hours a day. Moreover, 45 percent of remote employees said they work on the weekend. On average, employees who work from home log an additional 48.5 minutes per day, according to 2020 data from the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

Many people who work from home find that having the option to work outside of normal business hours offers a greater work/life balance. When employees have the flexibility to attend doctor’s appointments or a child’s school play, they are likely to feel more positive about their jobs and to have a stronger desire to meet deadlines and employer expectations. 

Working from home generally provides a healthier environment than working in an office. Employees who work from home are not exposed to illnesses that are often spread within an office setting. If workers are healthy, they miss fewer days and more work gets done. 

Leaders may feel that organic brainstorming and collaboration can’t occur because people are not physically in the office for these connections to take place. However, brainstorming sessions can be conducted online. Scheduling a brainstorming session gives people who need to process their thoughts time to think about potential options before the meeting so they can provide those ideas at a designated time—making the brainstorming session a more effective and efficient exercise.

Leaders must find innovative ways to navigate expectations and relationships with employees who work from home. If remote employees are meeting deadlines and the requirements of their position, then it stands to reason that productivity is not a cause for concern. 

Trust is critical in the work-from-home ­equation. If employees haven’t given the manager a reason to mistrust them, then the manager needs to provide space and grace for employees to work from home without the concern of productivity hanging over their heads. 

Working from home is not the end of worker productivity and will likely become more commonplace in the coming years, especially as organizations jockey for talent. Finding the perfect candidate may mean hiring a remote worker. 

Managing productivity for remote workers requires transparency, honesty and trust. Allowing employees to exercise autonomy and agency over their work environments results in greater loyalty and support from those workers, which leads to higher levels of productivity.   

Ralph Kellogg, SHRM-SCP, is vice president of people and training at Lutheran Family Services in Omaha, Neb.


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