A businesswoman efficiently maintains her remote work productivity while working at a cafe.

The Truth Behind Remote Work Productivity? It's Complicated.

It’s easy to reduce the complexity of remote work productivity to a simple boolean-style question: Is remote work more or less productive?

Productivity itself is measured by the relationship between the output and the input required to create and produce. When journalists and business leaders speak on “worker productivity”, they are exploring the ratio of time and energy to work completed.

So, can you be productive and work remotely? Well, it’s complicated, and the copious studies and articles framing the data often cited only make it more confusing. Both sides of the work-from-home debate cite studies and data when making their case, but in doing so miss the nuance. As in many hot topics, external factors, such as industry, the individual employee, and the pandemic itself, deflate a one-size-fits-all approach.
A businessman is working with data to improve his remote work productivity

Untangling the Data of Remote Work Productivity

When assessing remote work productivity in the post-pandemic economy, the data landscape has been anything but straightforward. The common refrain is that most employers believe remote work makes for less productive employees, but this isn’t always reflected in the data. Take this study from Texas A&M, for instance, which found that there was categorically no negative impact related to remote work productivity. Where is this narrative of unproductivity coming from? What’s the truth?

Pre- and Post-Pandemic Context

Ultimately, data is meaningless without context. The headlines are filled with splashy articles that fail to ground the data within its relevant application. When discussing employee productivity and remote work, critics compare productivity before and after the pandemic. However, when neglecting to contextualize the data in the complexities of a post-pandemic workforce, data bias appears.   

When articles frame data with a bias against remote work, the authors tend to forget the learning curve of the sudden work-from-home economy. Granted, the only time frame to compare data to is before the pandemic, but it’s crucial to admit that the pre-pandemic employee ecosystem had built upon decades of tested best practices. Remote work, on the other hand, remains in its infancy and is being met with hesitancy rather than a collaborative spirit. 

Detractors of remote work do not take into account how the pandemic hurt businesses through other factors, including supply chain issues and loss of workers. This argument also fails to consider remote workers’ emotional state after the pandemic — which experts say may have had a greater emotional impact on the world than World War II — or the potential physical effects of COVID-19, which may still linger in the workforce.

Industry Specific Correlations

On top of pandemic context, data shows that remote work can positively impact productivity. Those who benefit from at-home work find they can get more work done without interruption. Remote employees may even work longer and harder hours than before the pandemic in lieu of a commute. 

A working mother strives to ensure that her baby does not negatively impact her remote work productivity

On the other hand, some industries simply cannot function effectively in a remote world. The hospitality and retail spaces, for example, saw a 14% drop in employment during the pandemic. Leaders are finding that innovative and creative spaces may suffer from remote work because the virtual world may fail to provide a collaborative and inspiring environment.  

Proponents of remote work might not consider that different types of projects can benefit from in-office teamwork. For instance, a study found that remote work could negatively impact long-term projects while benefiting short-term projects. This may be because of communication lags, details lost online, or a lack of a collaborative environment.  

Though advocates of remote work struggle to admit it, it’s true that some remote workers are multitasking non-work related tasks on the clock. Caregivers for children or elderly parents may balance both work and personal responsibilities simultaneously, while there have been reports of the ‘over-employed’: employees working more than one full-time job at the same time.

While worker productivity is declining, the impact of remote work in that decline is complicated. In some sectors, the hard truth is that remote work does not work. In other industries, however, the reported decline in productivity may be caused by higher turnover rates, technology adaptability, or companies failing to provide efficient hybrid management practices. 

Atop a breathtaking mountain range, a man diligently focuses on his report, maintaining his remote work productivity

The Reality of Remote Work Productivity for Employees

Those on both sides of the discussion often cite how remote employees’ emotional well-being influences productivity. Of course, happy workers are likely to feel valued and deliver more results, but what constitutes a happy remote employee? Our view is that it ultimately depends on the individual. 

Many workers experience a better work-life balance once they make the switch to remote, despite common complaints of longer working hours and an inability to  “get away” from work. Individuals may prefer these downsides to the alternative: extended hours are worth it for those who dread commuting, for instance.

A hybrid business team implements effective management practices to improve remote work productivity

The Role of Leadership in Remote Work Productivity

It’s more important than ever to have a strong remote management system in place. While remote work is not suitable for every industry or every person, support from leadership plays a crucial role in the productivity of those team members who work from home. No matter where the data may point, it is undeniable that the workforce has shifted and more employees are expecting remote work and hybrid options. 

Remote and hybrid project management principles look much the same as traditional project management theories, only they take place through a digital lens. Strong working relationships are built on trust, and remote teams are no different. Nonetheless, how leadership cultivates that trust remotely may need to be adapted, and remote and hybrid working policies clearly established. Reframing how productivity is measured, such as focusing on project deadlines rather than hours worked, is one tool available to guide virtual workflows and create healthy working environments. 

The pandemic forced the global economy to improvise, which gave way to new project management tools and employee needs. As the world finds balance, business leaders can take time to reassess. Equipped with these new tools and an understanding of data, companies can find new ways to improve worker productivity and attract quality talent searching for remote options. 

In a conference room, a hybrid team uses remote tools to maintain remote work productivity

Bridging the Divide

While this article’s original question focused on whether remote work is more or less productive, the hidden, perhaps more relevant, question remains: How can we improve productivity in the new digital workplace? Undoubtedly, there will always be a new study or article that broadly frames remote work as a benefit or a detriment. The truth is in the middle, and ultimately compromises between advocates and proponents of remote work will inspire the most productive work environments.  

Compromises inspired by contextualized data can lead to thrilling and creative avenues to conduct business. The advancement of business-specific A.I. is one such example of the ways companies are leveraging new solutions to boost productivity, whether at home or in the office. Ever-advancing technology met with human creativity can unlock new, more efficient systems of management, and that’s something to be excited about wherever you prefer to work from. 

In the current job market, it can be a challenge to find high-quality candidates for in-office or remote vacancies. Whether your company is looking to fill openings for on-site, remote, or hybrid positions, The Hiring Advisors specializes in finding top-tier candidates for all work environments. Book an appointment here. You can also email us at info@thehiringadvisors.com or speak to one of our recruiters at (310) 504-3049.

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