Good news - most employees are as productive at home as in the office. But there is room to improve.
by Anita C. Keller, Caroline Knight, Sharon K. Parker
The outbreak of COVID-19 forced many companies to adopt remote work practices due to government restrictions and recommendations. This meant that many people found themselves suddenly working from home with little choice or preparation. Many companies previously did not allow flexible working, believing that tasks could not be completed, employees cannot be trusted to work effectively from home, or a combination of these two factors.
Despite companies’ reasonings, past research tends to show that working from home, at least some of the time, makes employees more productive as they don’t have to commute to work and can focus on their tasks without interruptions. However, we can’t simply assume that this research applies currently because the current situation is more demanding. For example, many employees have to work at home and are simultaneously figuring out how and which parts of their work they can perform online while caring for children. Intriguingly, some companies that have been more traditional in their work arrangements have now embraced remote working and claim they will allow more flexibility in the future. But are companies and employees prepared for such a shift or what is needed to be productive at home? Our study among approximately 1,300 employees answers these questions, explores how employees and organizations deal with large-scale working from home and assess what it means for their productivity.
Mixed effects for productivity and working hours
A clear majority of employees feel about as productive now (33.7%), or even more productive (37,5%), as before COVID-19. 28.8% say they are less productive.
Figure 1. Percentage of employees saying they feel more or less productive compared to before the outbreak of COVID-19.
Among the respondents who said they now work the majority of the workweek at home, 43% indicated that they work the same number of hours as before, 34% work reduced hours, and 21% work longer hours than usual. The employees who work reduced hours and report less productivity tend to have jobs that cannot be performed at home as easily; therefore, they don’t have as much work to do.
So, some employees are currently more productive and work longer hours, and some feel they are just as productive as they were before while working the same number of hours.
The big question is, what predicts if employees are currently more or less productive?
Understanding who is more productive and who is less
To understand what sets productive employees apart from less productive employees, we looked into organizational and individual factors that link with task proficiency (i.e., the degree to which an employee fulfills the requirements of their work role). One relevant factor could be whether employees already have some experience with working from home. About 40% of our participants reported having little to no experience with working from home, which means they had to adjust quickly to a completely new situation. Though previous experience seems somewhat helpful, it was not a driver of task proficiency during this time.
In our analysis, we found four factors that stand out and help employees to be more productive:
Receiving additional support from the organization
Feeling supported by coworkers
Engaging in daily planning by creating to-do lists and daily schedules
Taking leisure time to relax
Many organizations offer additional resources and their efforts pay off
The majority of participants in our study indicated that they received additional support from their organization to help them work from home (or would receive it if they asked for it). For example, organizations provided additional equipment such as laptops, cameras, external screens, actively created opportunities for coworkers to meet informally, and allowed their employees the flexibility and autonomy to decide when and how they complete their work.
In comparison, employees seem to receive less training on how to work with the new software and technology that has to be adopted to work effectively and safely from home.
Figure 2. Percentage of employees agreeing or disagreeing on statements about receiving additional organizational support to work from home.
This is reflected in the comparatively high percentage (25.5%) of employees who feel they need much more support with technological issues than they can get, and 23.3% who say they need somewhat more support than they can get. Higher productivity was predicted by additional training and guidance and offering equipment and creating opportunities for interactions among coworkers, which suggests that these organizational measures are worth the investment.
We are in this together: coworker support
Many employees have received and sent emails reminding their coworkers that during this unprecedented time, we need to look out for each other. Being able to count on others at work has long been recognized as an important factor for the well-being and performance of employees . Social support can come from both coworkers and supervisors, and includes receiving advice, assistance, the opportunity to share experiences, or simply opportunities for friendship.
In our analysis, coworker support was especially relevant for feeling productive. This underscores our finding that employees perform better when their organizations create opportunities for them to easily and informally meet.
It seems that the ability to chat with coworkers about what is or is not going well seems especially helpful. Potentially, it is easier to discuss the challenges of the sudden move to work from home with coworkers than with their supervisor, as employees may worry about their performance evaluation if they admit too many struggles to their supervisor. Hence, supervisors are encouraged to create opportunities for their employees to exchange their challenges, solutions, and best practices with others. Strategies could include organizing regular virtual coffee meetings or setting up a buddy system by teaming up every employee with another employee.
Creating daily to-do lists and schedules help
Time management practices are often recommended to help work through tasks, structure the day, and feel in control of time . Time management involves writing a to-do list for the day ahead, thinking about the most important goals and tasks, and scheduling work activities.
In our analysis, employees who reported planning most of their days also reported higher task proficiency.
Working from home, often with no direct social contact with coworkers, makes it easy to get distracted by hobbies, home chores, TV, or surfing the internet for some amusement. Daily planning also helped the employees in our study to keep their focus on the tasks at hand and not get sidetracked by distractions.
However, many employees tend to plan too many tasks and not account for delays and unforeseen activities or other disruptions that can occur in our dynamic work lives. Accounting for such uncontrollable and unforeseeable events by adding buffer times, allowing for flexibility in the order that tasks are executed, and coming up with alternative action plans helps employees to stay engaged . It is reasonable to assume that this type of planning is more important than ever during this extraordinary, fast, and ever-changing period.
Take time to relax even if there is so much to do
Adhering to a work schedule and a to-do-list may also help to carve out time for leisure activities.
It may sound paradoxical, but our analysis shows that taking enough time to relax, connect with loved ones, and engross oneself in hobbies helps to stay productive while one is working from home.
It has long been recognized that it is important for employees to make sure they recover from work by mentally distancing themselves from work and engaging in leisure activities. These activities not only support employees in their dealing with stress at work, but it also makes them more productive . Among our participants, actively taking time to relax and engage in enjoyable leisure activities was relevant for task proficiency, mentally distancing oneself from work was not. Previous research on remote working showed that there is a tendency to work longer when working at home, because work is easily accessible and the boundaries between private and professional life are blurred . We see such a trend in our data with 21% of employees reporting that they work more hours now than they did before the outbreak, and a similar number of employees reporting to work more than 40 hours per week. Now that all life domains take place at home, it is easy to continue working and not take time for oneself, but our results highlight the importance of doing so.
The bottom line from our study is that we should not assume that working from home is automatically more – or less – productive; it can be either. The support people get from their organizations and co-workers, as well as their time management skills and strategies for breaks and relaxation – are what make the difference.
More results and information on our “Thrive at work from home” study can be found here. Please click here for more resources, tips, and blogs on how employees and supervisors can seize the opportunity and work effectively from home.
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