Research Shows Remote-Work Productivity for IT Professionals Is Lower in Asia

By Shefali Anand July 7, 2021
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​Information technology profesionals in Asia are less productive when working remotely than when working at a physical location, according to new research from a study of 10,000 employees.   

The study found that IT employees working from home spent around 30 percent more time to produce the same results as when they were working in a physical office, thus lowering their daily productivity. Most of the extra work hours were spent attending online meetings and performing administrative or coordination activities.  

"We see that there are more scheduled meetings, and people have to go on Zoom more often to ask colleagues for help," said Friederike Mengel, one of the three authors of the study and an economics professor at the University of Essex in Essex, England. 

The study's findings are in contrast to what many companies have said about employee productivity over the past year. In one survey of 238 HR professionals in India, 68 percent said remote staff displayed higher productivity throughout the pandemic.

"Our productivity has increased," said Pradeepa Ravindran, Chennai-based vice president of human resources at Indium Software, a technology services provider. Indium's staff moved to remote working in March 2020, after India announced a nationwide lockdown, and has largely maintained that model ever since.

Ravindran said that with a few exceptions, its staff produced the same or better results while working from home. She said more collaboration calls were happening than before the pandemic and employees were working at different hours depending on their convenience, though she couldn't say if they were working longer hours. 

In the work-from-home productivity study, analysts confirmed that employees met their goals even while working from home. 

"They see that people have managed to produce the same as before," Mengel said. "But what they don't see is that they actually are working another four hours each night than they normally would be." While many everyday work issues can be quickly resolved in the office by asking a colleague, remote IT employees are likely spending more time resolving those issues themselves or getting on calls with others, she said.

To be sure, productivity results may vary by profession, Mengel added.  

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, is timely as many companies make plans focused on where their employees will work in the future. For example, research shows that IT jobs requiring a lot of collaboration and communication among teams are best done in a physical workplace, according to Mengel. 

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Remote Work

Remote Challenges

Many global leaders have pointed out the challenges of maintaining a fully remote workforce. One of them is Ajay Banga, CEO of Mastercard, who said last year that driving innovation on Zoom and other virtual platforms is a tough task. 

"Keeping everybody aligned is more and more difficult" when they're working from home, added Vishal Gupta, Mumbai-based founder and CEO of Seclore, a provider of data security technology solutions. 

Most Seclore offices have been closed since March 2020, and Gupta acknowledged that employee productivity has risen over that time, especially in large cities where people can save two to three hours of commuting time. However, "company productivity on average has gone down," he said. Gupta attributed this drop to additional time being spent on coordination and keeping team members on the same page.

Given this decline, Gupta said he doesn't see merit in asking employees to work in person intermittently when Seclore reopens. "The whole idea of coming into an office is that the whole team is in," he said. 

Whenever the company welcomes employees back to its offices, Gupta expects entire teams to come to work on the same days, though not all teams will be in the office at the same time. "For the company, it will be hybrid," Gupta said.

Employees also want to come to the office occasionally. At Indium Software, a recent employee poll showed that only 20 percent want to work permanently from home while 60 percent said they seek a hybrid-work model, according to Ravindran. "We have now proved that we can work remotely, but still people want to come to the office to meet their colleagues," she said. The company is preparing guidelines to meet these employee requirements.  

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Tracking Performance

In the remote-work productivity study, the participating IT employees were highly skilled, with many holding degrees in computer engineering or electronics. The study tracked employee activity using Sapience Analytics, a software program installed on employee computers. The software tracks the number of hours spent working, leaving out any time in which the employee is engaged in nonwork-related activity, such as browsing the Internet. Managers use this software to set performance goals for each employee, such as completing a coding project, and they measure all employee output. 

The company, which had shifted abruptly to a work-from-home arrangement in March 2020, shared employee data for every month between April 2019 until August 2020. The study's authors calculated productivity by dividing time worked by an employee per day each month (the input) by the percentage of tasks completed relative to assigned tasks (the output). It found that productivity fell by around 20 percent after March 2020.  

The study also found that employees had fewer one-on-one meetings with their superiors while working remotely. In other words, individual mentoring and coaching took a backseat. 

Mengel said the lesson learned from this research is that while many IT tasks are best suited to in-office work, companies should continue to embrace a flexible approach to accommodate worker schedules, which means HR shouldn't have a blanket policy on workplace location for all staff. 

"Tailored policies are important," Mengel said.

Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.

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