Research Shows that Remote Work Productivity for IT Professionals is Lower in Asia

By Shefali Anand July 1, 2021
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​Employees in Asia working in IT have lower productivity when remote than when working at a physical location, according to new research of 10,000 employees.   

The study found that IT employees working from home spent around 30% 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 coordination activities.  

"We see that there are more scheduled meetings, and people have to go on Zoom more often to ask colleagues for help," says 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 chiefs in India, 68% said that remote staff displayed higher productivity in the pandemic. https://www.shrm.org/shrm-india/pages/new-priorities-for-workforce-management-in-india.aspx

"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 except for a few exceptions, their staff produced the same results or more while they have been working from home. She said that more collaboration calls were happening than before and employees were working at different hours depending on their convenience, though she couldn't say they are working longer hours. 

In the WFH productivity study (Read More), analysts confirmed that employees met their goals even working from home, which is what companies often refer to as productivity. 

"They see that people have managed to produce the same as before. But what they don't see is that they actually are working another four hours each night than they normally would be," says Mengel. While many everyday work issues could 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 says.

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

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, the research shows that IT jobs requiring a lot of collaboration and communication among teams are best done in a physical workplace, according to Mengel. 

Remote Challenges

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

"Keeping everybody aligned is more and more difficult" when they're working from home, adds 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 over that time Gupta admits that employee productivity has risen, especially in large cities where people can save two to three hours of commuting time. However, "company productivity on average has gone down," he says. Gupta attributes this drop to additional time being spent on coordination and keeping team members on the same page.

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

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," says Gupta.

Employees also want to come to the office occasionally. At Indium Software, a recent employee poll showed that only 20% want to work permanently from home while 60% of the employees said they seek a hybrid work model, according to Ravindran. "We have now proven 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, she said.  

Tracking Performance

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

Another finding of the study was 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 says 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, she says. 

"Tailored polices are important," says Mengel. 

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