When it comes to completely virtual work, one of the most commonly asked questions is its impact on productivity. Many leaders who were forced into a work-from-home (WFH) environment due to COVID-19 have their own thoughts on the matter.
For many teams, working from home doesn’t negatively impact productivity. In some cases, teams’ productivity improved as their work environment became more structured, and they were able to invest more focused uninterrupted time in their tasks.
In other cases, however, productivity declined following the shift to remote work.
Here’s an analysis of how virtual work has impacted productivity, and the long-term ramifications of this shift.
How Has Virtual Work Impacted Productivity?
The impacts of WFH on productivity has been hotly debated in recent years. In 2020, Harvard Business Review (HBR) shared a set of findings from their research that highlighted several challenges of in-person companies transitioning to a remote environment.
While most white-collar employees made the transition to virtual work well, the study revealed a critical risk for long-term organizational health and performance—losing the connection that’s typically created through spontaneous communication, small talk, and casual interactions.
Challenges of Remote Work
HBR highlights three types of connections potentially undermined by all-virtual work:
1. Integrating New Employees
As London Business School’s Dan Cable, Harvard’s Francesca Gino, and the University of North Carolina’s Bradley Staats have shown in their research, great onboarding involves allowing new employees to apply their signature strengths and express their genuine selves.
This typically requires numerous in-depth interactions, and existing employees are accustomed to having those in person.
2. Creating “Weak Ties”
Weak ties refer to shallow or peripheral relationships among members of an organization who don’t work closely with each other but have nonetheless connected over time.
By providing novel information and complementary expertise, weak ties have been shown to play an important role in organizational performance, including innovation, raising or maintaining product and service quality, and attaining project milestones.
3. Fostering Relationships
Virtual work makes it difficult for leaders to observe and foster the creation of relationships among their pools of talent that are likely to produce benefits for the organization in the future.
Managing by walking around doesn’t translate into managing by emailing around (as Ethan Burris, a McCombs School of Business professor, put it). People are still getting the work done, but the long-term relationships that once sprang from shared experiences are undoubtedly at risk.
What Are the Implications for Teams?
All-virtual work requires proactive strategies for deepening connections in teams. This is crucial to avoiding an inevitable drop in long-term performance. Moreover, by actively working on maintaining and expanding connections virtually, teams can improve their productivity and become happier in their job.
Productivity Studies on Remote Work
Stanford professor, Nicholas Bloom, teamed up with academics from MIT, ITAM, and the University of Chicago to host a huge survey. It focused on workers’ attitudes about remote work and their work arrangements. As of April 2022, those working remotely reported a 9% increase in efficiency compared to their in-office work.
Additionally, over 250 workers from an oil and gas company were forced to leave the office after Hurricane Harvey. The study shows that productivity levels were just as good as in the office, except when the hurricane hit.
Finally, a survey of 800 workers by Mercer, an HR and workplace benefits consulting firm, shows that productivity was at least as good if not better than before the pandemic despite workers being remote.
The research isn’t just positive, however. Stanford research suggests that fully remote workers are up to 10% less productive than their in-person counterparts.
Why is Research Split?
The question of whether remote workers are more productive is difficult to answer, because it depends on a wide range of factors.
Are Employees Remote by Design or Circumstance?
If the company was remote by design, their hiring practices, corporate culture, and communication channels are optimized for remote work. This makes it more likely that they’re ready for the challenges of a WFH environment. Productivity likely won’t be as negatively affected by working remotely for these companies.
If companies were designed for an in-person environment and were forced to shift to virtual work because of the pandemic, however, their productivity might have taken a hit as they struggled to adapt. Communication channels, team rituals, and company culture designed for in-person interactions had to be moved online.
What’s the Industry?
Different industries are inherently better suited for remote work. For example, many essential workers—like nurses or cashiers—weren’t able to transition to remote work due to the nature of their jobs.
Even remote-capable jobs have varying degrees of difficulty when it comes to virtual work. For example, a salesperson who has historically sought new business in-person might have a difficult time canvassing remotely, whereas a social media manager whose role already involves online work would likely have an easier time making the switch.
A Stanford study revealed that the top industries that are friendly to remote workers are:
- Finance and Insurance
- Professional and Business Services
These industries are largely computer-based and analytical, and top earners in these fields typically have nicer homes that provide more room for home offices.
How is Productivity Defined and Measured?
Employees and managers have different opinions about remote work. Research from HBR shows that managers are more likely to say remote work harms productivity, whereas remote workers are more likely to say that it makes them more productive. Gallup research reveals that, in the U.S., 73% of remote workers believe remote work has had either no impact or a positive impact on their productivity.
That’s because employees may factor in measurements like commute time into subconscious productivity calculations, whereas managers likely track productivity from the moment employees sign into work.
These differences in perspective might influence how productivity is understood by managers and employees alike, making productivity difficult to measure on a broader scale.
How to Keep Remote Teams Productive and Engaged
The research suggests that remote teams can be just as productive as any other team. However, it does take some work to ensure that happens. Workers need to be given the right tools to do a fantastic job at home or on the road, just as they would if their time was being spent in an office.
Here are three ways leaders can optimize their virtual workplaces for productivity:
- Trust your team: As a leader, it’s essential to trust your team. Micromanagement is detrimental to productivity. Foster a framework of trust, and you’ll know people are accomplishing their tasks.
- Keep your team accountable: At the same time, there needs to be accountability. If someone isn’t meeting deadlines or getting their work done, it’s important to be proactive about making needed changes.
- Foster team connection: Your team members should also be supporting each other when remote. Building connection and inclusion is critical for remote work to prevent your team from feeling siloed.
The reality is that happy teams are the most likely to be productive. This is how you get great work out of them regularly.
Improving Virtual Productivity With Teamraderie
While the answer to “Does remote work increase productivity” might be yes, it also takes some hard work to get there.
Further, many organizations are seeking to capitalize on the benefits of both in-person and virtual work by offering hybrid arrangements that allow employees to work from home 2-3 days per week.
Regardless of whether your team is fully remote or hybrid, it’s essential to create proactive strategies that work to deepen connections in the team. This will be more extensive than would be needed in an office where everyone bumps into each other as a matter of course.
If you can put strategies in place that increase productivity, the whole team can benefit, as well as the organization as a whole. It makes it easier to set team goals and be sure they are met.
Teamraderie’s experiences can improve employee satisfaction, build connection and inclusion, and increase overall productivity as a result. If you’re interested in learning more, check out our 60+ experiences designed to help remote, hybrid, and in-person teams alike connect and build team trust.