Rapid Transition to Remote Work: What HR Needs to Know

New research on how workers have adjusted to COVID-19-driven change in conditions

By Kristen M. Shockley, Tammy D. Allen, Hope Dodd and Aashna M. Waiwood December 17, 2020

​Employees forced to start working remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have adjusted well, according to research conducted in spring 2020 at the height of nationwide lockdowns. Asked to rate their adjustment on a scale of 1 to 5, nearly 500 survey respondents scored their job performance highly, at about 4, and scored their stress level in the middle, at almost 3. The research also identified factors that consistently predicted how well remote workers would adjust to their new conditions, including feelings of social isolation and whether they had the right workspace at home. The project was funded by National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grants.

The research findings have been published in Rapid Transition to Remote Work during COVID-19: A Study of Predictors of Employee Well-Being and Productivity. The report will assist in the development of evidence-based guidance regarding remote work arrangements. The ability of businesses to continue essential functions through such arrangements played a key role in early efforts to address the global health crisis, and millions continue to work remotely while the threat persists. Many organizations, however, were unprepared to accommodate a remote workforce and still lack insight into the factors affecting their workers' adjustment. While there is a large body of research on remote work, numerous questions remain in need of investigation.

This study surveyed 498 full-time employees who began working remotely during the response to COVID-19 and who had not worked remotely before. Participants were asked about their transition to remote work, aspects of working remotely, and their work and non-work lives after making the transition. Data were collected over a four-week period between the end of April and mid-June 2020.

Three Aspects of Adjusting to Remote Work

Three aspects of remote work adjustment were examined: overall adjustment, stress level and job performance relative to pre-COVID-19 job performance. In terms of these aspects, workers adjusted well.

The average score reported by participants on their overall adjustment to remote work was 3.94 out of 5, and the average stress level they reported was 2.75.

Average job performance during remote work compared to before remote work was 76.6 percent (of 100 percent). Fifteen percent of participants indicated that their performance was over 100 percent—meaning they performed better working remotely than they had under normal conditions.

Factors Predicting Adjustment Outcomes

More than 60 potential predictors of remote work adjustment were also investigated.

Of the top five factors predicting overall adjustment to remote work, the first predictor—feelings of social isolation—had a negative effect on participants. The remaining four factors predicted favorable effects on overall adjustment: having a home workspace conducive to productivity, quality of sleep during remote work, how smoothly the organization handled the transition and comfort of the home workspace.

As for workers' levels of stress during remote work, three of the top five factors named by participants predicted negative outcomes: feelings of social isolation, stress level prior to the pandemic, and general proneness to anxiety. Favorable outcomes were predicted by two factors: having a home workspace conducive to productivity and quality of sleep prior to the pandemic.

The top predictor of job performance relative to performance before the pandemic was feelings of social isolation, with a negative effect. Positive outcomes for performance resulted from the other four factors named: having a home workspace conducive to productivity, how smoothly the organization handled the remote work transition, quality of sleep during transition to remote work and increase in the variety of tasks involved in the job.

Predictors of Productivity and Well-Being

Respondents' productivity and well-being was assessed daily over four weeks.

The top three predictors for daily performance and engagement, all favorable, were the extent to which technology facilitated performance, job-related information exchanged with co-workers and taking shorter non-lunch breaks.

Participants named three factors affecting their daily well-being. Two predicted negative effects: the extent to which technology was exhausting and feelings of social isolation. A favorable outcome resulted from one predictor: job-related information exchanged with co-workers.

Technologies for Remote Work

At the end of the study, participants were asked about the technologies they were using to work remotely.

The top five best technologies for productivity cited by participants were computer monitor hooked up to laptop, e-mail, Google Drive, Zoom and Microsoft Teams. The top five best technologies they cited for social connection were Zoom, Microsoft Teams, text messaging, Google Meet/Google Hangouts and e-mail.

Respondents also named the five most frustrating technologies: virtual private networks (VPN), Zoom, Microsoft Teams, e-mail and company-specific internal file-sharing systems.

The full report, accessible here, includes recommendations for remote work practice.

Kristen Shockley is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. Tammy D. Allen is Distinguished University Professor and Area Director, Industrial-Organizational Psychology, at the University of South Florida. Hope Dodd is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia. Aashna M. Waiwood is a doctoral student at the University of South Florida.



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