Remote work was always seen as a romantic lifestyle, reserved for only a lucky few who must live like digital nomads in some cheap tropical country. But the pandemic, with its subsequent stay-at-home orders, suddenly turned almost everyone whose jobs involved even a bit of online time into full-time remote workers.
In many ways, this was to become one of the largest natural experiments in the world of business and human resources. Managers were simply livid with an overarching question hovering over their minds: just how much productivity will suck now?
But it was just the opposite and labor productivity actually surged during the pandemic.
According to a study by the International Labour Organization, the world's output per hour worked increased by nearly 5% in 2020. That's more than double the long-term average annual rate of 2.4% measured between 2005 and 2019.
In fact, even before the pandemic, there was solid evidence that remote work can lead to productivity boosts. One 2014 study had a NASDAQ-listed company randomly assign call center employees to either work-from-home or the office. Those working remotely had a 13% performance increase and a 50% lower attrition rate.
Productivity versus remote work
Productivity is a measure of how efficiently inputs such as labor, capital, land, energy, and other intangible factors are used to produce goods and services. Each manager will tend to measure productivity differently, but a simple way to look at it is how output changes per hour worked, whether it's the number of products exiting an assembly line, the number of claims solved by an insurance company, or simply the amount of revenue generated by a company per worker.
In order to keep productivity stable or even improve it, companies have had to make sizable investments in infrastructure, adopt new communication technologies like cloud phone systems, improve workers’ safety and health, or incorporate more efficient business practices.
But despite many businesses experiencing gains in productivity, there is still growing anxiety among upper management in many companies that these gains won't last and a reversal is inevitable. This is why we're seeing many employees that have enjoyed a year or even more of "working from home" receiving notifications that they should now come to the office. Some managers want a 'hybrid' system where employees show up for one, two, or even three days per week to the office, while others are insisting on returning to the previous status quo and working from the office full-time again.
Well, as one might naturally expect, these measures have caused a backlash in which employees are quitting instead of giving up working from home, hybrid or not. A high-profile example includes Apple's director of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, who resigned over the Silicon Valley giant’s return-to-office policy. Goodfellow's dissatisfaction is mirrored by others at Apple, with a third-party survey finding over 76% of Apple employees are not fond of the company's return-to-office plans and 56% plan on resigning over it.
Yet despite objective gains in productivity and the risk of losing some of their best employees, many managers are still adamant that employees ought to come back to the office. Their objection is that remote work diminishes collaboration and company culture. JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon went as far as saying it doesn’t work “for those who want to hustle.”
So managers are afraid that their employees are slacking behind their backs, while the employees themselves are convinced they are actually doing more, better work. For instance, the Work Trend Index Pulse Report, which questioned 20,000 people in 11 countries, found that more than half of the managers questioned said that productivity has dropped since the shift to remote work, while 8 out of 10 employees say they work at least as efficiently when logging on at home.
This results in undesirable tensions between management and workers, which can be difficult to resolve. Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella sums is up eloquently:
“We have to get past … ‘productivity paranoia’, because all of the data we have shows that 80% plus of the individual people feel they’re very productive – except their management thinks that they’re not productive,” he told BBC News.
Productivity paranoia and theater
The 'productivity paranoia' is also having some peculiar, if not humorous side effects. One of them is 'productivity theater', whereby remote workers resort to all sorts of gimmicks that give the impression that they are actually working very hard from home. This includes frequently updating their status on Slack or Microsoft Teams, moving their mouse so productivity tracking software doesn't register them as idle, saying 'hello' and 'goodbye' in different work chat channels throughout the day, and even joining teleconferences they are required to attend.
Why go through all this trouble? Vox reports that in addition to their work on the clock, workers report spending an average of 67 extra minutes each day to make sure they're visibly working. This is obviously stressful and many report feeling burned out, but they nevertheless continue with this behavior out of fear that management would call them back to the office if they felt productivity was taking a slump and 'people are slacking'. The specter of a looming recession and the prospect of getting fired also add fuel to the fire.
Of course, productivity theater is not a novel thing. Some office workers have always resorted to theatricals to give the impression they're going the extra mile to secure their position or perhaps even a promotion. Some might show up first to the office and be the last to leave it. Others would strategically ask certain questions during conference meetings just to get noticed.
And there's another reason why productivity theater is prevalent: it just works. This phenomenon is owed to an inherent bias that is rather common among managers, whereby they are inclined to evaluate employees based on 'face time', the amount of time they see employees spend in the office. However, this doesn't really say much considering in-office workers spend only 39% of the time on the clock, on average, doing actual work.
Companies that learn to embrace remote work will stand to benefit, enjoying a lower attrition rate while attracting better talent. As for managers, they would do well to address their proximity bias and reconsider the way they are evaluating employees in the future. The old way of doing things may simply never come back.