Despite such a huge volume of evidence produced during the pandemic, many conservative voices still remain lukewarm in their support of remote working. Research from King’s College London provides the latest attempt to add some evidence to the debate.
The researchers wanted to provide tangible evidence to a debate that often seems to revolve as much about emotive opinions as anything more tangible. The study examined a number of existing studies, each of which applied a unique approach to examining productivity during Covid.
For instance, some measured productivity based on accounting data, some measured it based on the hours worked and the activities people performed, while others measured productivity via self-assessment from workers.
The results show that those studies using the first two approaches typically found a negative relationship between working from home and productivity. Those studies using self-assessment tended to produce more mixed results.
One might assume, therefore, that a return to the office is required to regain our productivity and boost economic performance. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that remote working had no positive impact, as indeed research from Kellogg Business School identified recently.
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The analysis found that GDP would likely have fallen by around twice as much during 2020 if remote working was not the option it ultimately was. What was interesting, however, is that the productivity boom that many have argued materialized in the wake of the shift to remote working was not really found in the data. The researchers explain that this claim only really held water if the only inputs were those associated with traditional workplaces, such as energy costs or office space.
In other words, it assumes that those things weren’t also a cost when we worked from home, which of course is not the case. Once those costs were factored into our home working environment, the apparent productivity boom largely disappeared. This is something that the King’s researchers readily concede.
“The investment and various measures taken by firms to deal with the productivity consequences of the pandemic have mitigated the decline in output and significantly changed the work dynamics,” they explain.
Back to work
Indeed, they suggest that the results seen during the Covid pandemic are consistent with explorations of the impact of other epidemics. For instance, they argue that each of the epidemics seen since 2000 has typically resulted in a fall in labor productivity by around 4% over three years.
A recent survey from Cambridge Judge Business and School and the Vitality Research Institute sheds some light on why remote working may have underwhelmed. The study, which was based on over 1,000 workers from the Vitality financial services group, found that the number of meetings grew by 7.4% between June 2020 and December 2021. This time spent in meetings is not time well spent, however, as the study found that the meetings are typically of low quality.
Such meetings are defined in a number of ways. For instance, participants could be multitasking throughout it, or they could double-book them with other meetings or tasks. They might even have participants with overly similar roles, which increases duplication.
“Low-quality meetings often translate into less productivity and high levels of multitasking can increase stress,” the researchers explain.
A rounded perspective
Of course, workers should not be considered as automatons for whom productivity is the only thing that matters. The King’s researchers highlight that wellbeing has generally risen among those working from home, not least due to the boost to their work-life balance that the lack of commute has provided.
This perhaps underlines the results of a survey from the Swinburne University of Technology into the kind of working arrangement people are seeking after Covid. The study reveals that under a quarter want to return to the office five days per week, with a similar percentage hoping to work remotely full-time. The remainder want some kind of hybrid work that splits their time between the office and a remote workplace.
What was perhaps most interesting, however, is that there wasn’t one distinct form of hybrid work, but instead three different approaches:
- Days in office fixed, with workers expected to attend the office for a specific number of set days (e.g. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays). This applied to 29% of hybrid workers (and 15.6% of all respondents).
- Fixed office frequency, but workers have the flexibility to choose which days (i.e. any three days a week). This applied to 24.3% of hybrid workers (and 13.1% of all respondents).
- Flexibility to choose where they work and when. This was the case for 28.5% of hybrid workers (and 15.4% of all survey respondents).
If working from home, or hybrid working at least, is going to be a feature of office work for the foreseeable future, it is perhaps wise for leaders, and indeed policymakers, to try and look beyond the often extravagant claims one way or the other and take an evidence-based approach to the decision.
For instance, a recent study from BCG and Verizon into the effectiveness of online meetings during Covid produced a number of fairly straightforward procedural recommendations that the researchers believe could make meetings better. For instance, stating the purpose of the meeting in its invite, ensuring that only truly required participants are invited, and distributing post-meeting notes including follow-up actions could go a long way towards ensuring that meetings are more effective.
“We have had to do a lot of experimenting during the pandemic to figure out what has worked and what hasn’t worked, but this is only going to continue in the months and years to come,” says Tami Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business. “It’s set to be a really interesting time as we continue to experiment and begin to truly understand how to make work effective and engaging.”
This is likely to be a highly iterative process that will involve a large degree of trial and error as individual teams and organizations find out what works for them. As we move out of the sphere of trading opinions and arguments and into the more practical realities of our new way of working, it’s important that we have a real appreciation of the needs of all stakeholders.