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Is Remote Work to Blame for Lower Productivity?

A woman is sitting at a desk with a laptop in front of her.

To put it bluntly, worker productivity in the U.S. is anemic.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that productivity dropped 7.4 percent in the first quarter of 2022 and 4.6 percent in the second quarter. The third quarter looked a bit better, with productivity inching up by 0.3 percent.

So what's going on here?

Experts point to an array of factors contributing to the overall decline in productivity. Leadership expert Leilani Carver, associate professor of strategic communication and leadership at Maryville University, and Shane Metcalf, co-founder and chief people officer at productivity software provider 15Five, said these factors include:

  • Lingering possibility of recession. Bloomberg Economics predicts a recession will hit the U.S. by October 2023.
  • Mass layoffs. In the tech sector alone, more than 85,000 workers in the U.S. had been laid off this year as of mid-November, according to Crunchbase News.
  • Supply chain problems, which the World Economic Forum says are being spurred by rising costs, labor unrest, energy shortages, geopolitical uncertainty and extreme weather.
  • Worker burnout. Forbes describes worker burnout as an "international crisis."
  • The Great Resignation—the pandemic-triggered, record-high exit of Americans from the workforce.
  • "Quiet quitting," which has affected at least 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the Gallup polling organization.

Carver and other experts dismiss the notion that the work-from-home movement is a major driver in reduced productivity. In fact, Carver noted that growing evidence suggests remote work actually lifts productivity. However, Denise Macik, manager of strategic HR advisory services at G&A Partners, a professional employer organization, stressed that remote or hybrid work can harm productivity when these models aren't properly managed.

"People are feeling disconnected and full of uncertainty right now," Metcalf said. "But it's a mistake to think that a decline in productivity is because people are working remotely or because we're in a recessionary environment. The dearth of productivity is the result of a confluence of factors."

Experts offer seven suggestions to boost workers' output, whether they work in the office or remotely.

1. Assess workplace productivity.

Organizational communication expert Rebecca Rice, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, suggested a spot survey of your workforce. Ask employees whether they sense a decline in productivity, and look around to see whether you notice any deterioration.

2. Conduct employee check-ins.

Carver recommended managers conduct weekly half-hour check-ins with each employee to address their questions and gauge their concerns. "This is time-consuming but immensely valuable," she said.

During these one-on-ones, Carver said, managers should pose questions like, "What do you wish I knew about your work that I don't?" and "What is a time-suck that you would like to eliminate?" and then intently listen to the responses.

3. Encourage teamwork.

Carver suggested developing practices that promote inclusion of every team member, no matter where they're working. For example, you might hold team meetings solely via videoconference, meaning both in-office and remote workers are gathering in the same virtual environment.

4. Be clear about expectations.

In the past, employees may have readily volunteered to take on more work without giving much thought to the extra time spent or asking for any extra compensation, according to Macik.

"Now, the thought is that isn't really something they want to take on because it may require longer hours, which makes them less available for their family, or they don't see any compensation for the extra work and they miss valuable time with their family," Macik said. "Leaders need to reconsider their workforce demands, review job descriptions that provide clear direction and [look at] compensation changes."

As part of this effort, employers should craft remote-work policies that precisely lay out expectations for offsite employees, she added.

5. Reconsider technology.

A recent report from work management platform Wrike found that the typical employee now uses as many 14 apps to get work done and handles an average of 295 messages each workday. In light of that, Andrew Filev, founder and CEO of Wrike, said employers should consider streamlining the number of tech tools in the workplace toolbox.

"When workers don't have to spend time tracking their efforts and contributions, they have more time to focus on higher-level work, engage more meaningfully in their projects, increase their productivity and output, and build deeper relationships at work," Filev said. "This also gives them more freedom to recharge and fully disconnect from work so that they can be more fully present and engaged during their off time as well as their on time."

6. Pay attention to mental health.

Rice noted that employees still may be coping with mental health challenges tied to the pandemic. Employers should make mental health a key component of productivity measures.

"It's important that employers think about how to cultivate resilience in employees by attending to the whole employee," she said. "Beyond productivity, what might be going on that is impacting employees at work? What resources can you provide to address those issues?"

7. Go beyond a simplistic approach.

Vicky Nunes, senior director of people experience at employee experience platform Simpplr, said merely asking employees to improve productivity is overly simplistic and ineffective. This tactic implies that employees are slacking off, she explained.

"Productivity doesn't improve in response to a carrot or a stick," Nunes said. "Rather, productivity improves when the work environment enables employees with the tools, data and systems they need to work without friction, and they're empowered to make decisions without non-value-added approvals or oversight."

John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.


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