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Worker Productivity Is Down. Is Remote Work the Cause?

Turnover, slow technology adoption could also be factors

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

​U.S. worker productivity year-over-year has declined for five straight quarters for the first time on record. Does that support the arguments made by critics of remote work that traditional, in-person work produces better results?

"We've seen ongoing sluggishness with economic output, all the while experiencing a very strong labor market recovery," said Gregory Daco, chief economist at EY-Parthenon, the strategy consulting arm of global accounting and advisory firm EY, which produced the insight using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

But in response to those who say the sustained drop in productivity is a result of the work-from-anywhere revolution, Daco says "not necessarily."

U.S. productivity fell 2.7 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to last year, but concurrently, the number of hours worked increased, meaning that people are working longer hours but aren't as productive as they used to be.

Daco said employers should be careful not to scapegoat flexible work, while affirming that it could be one of the causes of lower productivity. "The assumption is that people may work less efficiently when at home, because they are often multitasking nonwork tasks," he said. That may include caring for children, elderly parents or others who need assistance, say workplace experts.

Hybrid work arrangements can be the most stressful for workers and the toughest to navigate because of the uncertainty involved, according to research from Jeanne Meister, executive vice president at Executive Networks, a San Francisco-based resource group for HR leaders, and the founder of the Future Workplace Academy, which provides learning and research on the future of work. "Companies are not providing enough guidance in how to be successful working in these new environments," she said. "It's easy to lay blame on the workers but what can the employer do to enable remote and hybrid work in a successful way?"

The high rate of turnover since the pandemic could be another factor leading to lower productivity. "People have been shifting jobs, moving to different sectors, in some cases quitting, in some cases taking early retirement," Daco said. "There's been a lot of churn in the labor market. To some degree that has weighed on worker productivity. If you replace someone who has been in their role for 10 years with someone brand new, productivity will take a hit."  

The digital workplace transformation could be yet another reason for lower output, Daco said. "Technology adoption takes time," he said. "When a company rolls out a new way to do things, it takes longer than intended. Sometimes new technology is not more productive initially, and in some cases, it may be less productive until everyone gets up to speed."  

We've rounded up articles from SHRM Online to provide more context.

What's to Blame for Lower Productivity?

Experts point to an array of factors contributing to the overall decline in productivity, including economic uncertainty, layoffs, burnout and a high rate of quitting.

(SHRM Online)

Productivity Disconnect

Although studies have shown that employees are often more productive when they have the option to work remotely, business leaders remain skeptical, a phenomenon that researchers have dubbed "productivity paranoia."

(SHRM Online)

How to Manage a Hybrid Workforce

Data supports the belief that hybrid work is the future. But in many ways, hybrid teams are more challenging to manage than all-remote or entirely in-person ones—which is why it will be essential for companies to implement effective hybrid work practices.

(SHRM Online)

HR Pros Rank Top Reasons for Turnover

SHRM Research surveyed HR professionals in the U.S. to learn what they consider the top reasons for turnover at their organizations. Respondents ranked a list of common reasons why employees have been exiting.

(SHRM Online)


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