In early 2020, many businesses were, where possible, forced to adopt a remote working model of operation in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This led employees to exchange the communal, centralised working spaces of brick and mortar offices for the personal desks within their own home. Despite teleworkers previously making up 5% of the UK’s workforce, a figure that had been already been growing in the years prior, there were, and remain, a number of sceptics who criticise its impact upon performance.
One key issue, it is claimed, is that remote working reduces productivity levels. There are common reservations about the ability of a worker to focus professionally within a personal living space, especially for those who are unable to establish a suitably organised home office. Others fear that without the presence of face-to-face supervision, employees will lose their drive, allowing their performance to slow.
While these challenges do occur, it is a misconception that productivity among employees drops when working remotely. In fact, as data allows us to now more clearly demonstrate, with the right management and support, productivity increases.
Learning From Leaders
As teleworking became part of ‘the new normal’, leading figures in business shared their experiences adapting. Tim Cook, talking in an interview with payroll services leaders, PGS, as part of their Learning From Leaders series, offered anecdotal evidence of employee productivity, stating “Week one, working from home, is about 80%. Week two is 100%. Week three is 120%. And it stayed there ever since.”
Reflecting on the difficulty of clearly measuring productivity, especially when comparing business operations that aren’t necessarily quantifiable, he rests on the belief that, teleworking has demonstrated the potential to increase productivity across most sectors. Data that has been gathered on the subject, before and during the pandemic, supports Cook’s remarks.
Offering employees the opportunity to work from home does not, however, automatically necessitate this productivity. As mentioned above, challenges do occur. Isolation from coworkers changes office relationships, leading to interpreting communication without the context of human interaction. The physical distance experienced by an employee can also lead to a mental distance, creating a sense of division from the business. If these challenges are not properly managed, then the potential for productivity can indeed be compromised.
Reflecting on the challenges, Cook states that he adopts a “Tight. Loose. Tight” methodology, one that outlines clear goals and places significant follow-up on tasks, but that allows workers to perform the actual task however they feel comfortable. Additionally, he adds, ensuring a clear divide between work life and personal life is crucial.
The ability to separate work from home is a challenge that falls upon both the employee and the employer. While a teleworker must make an effort to optimise their remote working environment, deterring distractions, it is the business’ managers that must also ensure breaks are both offered and taken, and that out of office hours are respected, or face the consequences of potential burnout.
It is expected that 2019’s aforementioned remote working figure will increase five-fold over the next few years, reaching 25% in 2025. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption and development of essential technologies, such as video conferencing tools, cloud storage services, and networking assets, which has led to many of the initial prejudices faced by remote working to either be proven wrong or overcome.
As a greater percentage of the workforce becomes remote, we are likely to gain a more accurate insight into its immediate and longterm effects, as well as how to better manage a virtual workforce. While the question of remote working productivity has previously been about its possibility, now it is only about potential.