The WFH Series: Addressing the Productivity Concerns Associated with Remote Work
Will workers be more productive working from home over the long term? The answer will shape much of how we work and manage going forward.
Will workers be more productive working from home? That today is literally foremost among the biggest unknowns for managers everywhere, with really no easy or confirmable answer to that question at this point in time. Research into the productivity question during the pandemic has seemed to indicate that despite us being shifted to working from home abruptly and that the shift brought on an “imperfect experiment “ in working remotely, overall, workers in the United States at least seem to be able to be as productive, if not moreso, in the remote/WFH (work from home) environment as in the traditional office setting. Similar research from around the world conducted during the pandemic seems to indicate improved productivity similar to that found in the US. The real outlier in the studies was one done by Morikawa in Japan. His research indicated that Japanese workers saw significant - almost 40% - lower productivity when working from the home environment (of course, the average Japanese home is far smaller and more “efficient'' than the typical American abode). 
While there were studies investigating productivity when working remotely done pre-pandemic, these research projects generally dealt with situations where the shift to remote work was well planned and anticipated. Still, considering the growth pre-pandemic of remote work, there really has been, overall, a paucity of research into this area. In fact, the most widely cited study, and in reality, The study cited in almost every article dealing with work from home issues was led by Nicolas Bloom of Stanford University and was conducted in China in 2013. Bloom’s research team investigated productivity in a Chinese travel agency where work was shifted to home for customer service representatives. They found that these call center workers were 13% more productive working remotely than working in the office. So, this 13% increase has come to be somehow accepted as the likely level of productivity increase for workers around the world (despite the fact that this means a huge logical leap across cultures). 
So what will the likely impact be of shifting more and more of work to remote status - and to the home environment - in the United States overall, and in particular, in the public sector beyond the pandemic period? The answer is really unclear at this point, and it will depend on a large number of situational factors. First, there is the nature of the work involved. Studies have shown this - and logic dictates - that not all jobs translate to working remotely easily, efficiently, or even practically. However, according to research into various job fields, in excess of 25 million non-tech related jobs could shift to remote and/or hybrid work arrangements over the next few years, even in fields that have been formerly considered off-limits due to their hands-on nature, such as construction, food services, agriculture, construction, mining, utilities, transportation and warehousing. Even within office work and professional occupations, there can be wide disparities between what types of work translates more readily to a remote environment. And for those employed in governmental work, the issue of paper and data security will often be determinative in terms of what roles and specific jobs can be shifted to WFH. And finally, one cannot escape the fact that the whole notion of remote work is correlated with higher income jobs. Yes, many people wanted to work from home during the pandemic - and still do today - but cannot due to the nature of their “essential” work. And so the ability to work remotely can be seen as a sign of privilege, as it is far more accessible to those with higher income jobs and occupations than the average worker today.
Certainly, one of the interesting, and yes important, aspects of working from home is what we might label an example of the “self fulfilling prophecy“ of remote work. This was first talked about in a Mental Floss article by Michele Debczak, written back in 2016, well before the pandemic, of course. The author spoke in terms of workers believing that they were more productive working from home than working in the office and how this self perception can, in turn, become a reality. So yes, a worker wanting to work from home, and believing that they can be more productive doing their job in a remote environment, is certainly something that needs to be considered in making remote work decisions. Those expectations can, in fact, often become reality - making the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of working remotely “work” both for the individual and the organization.
The productivity question is certainly one that must be dealt with on the individual level and on the organizational level. However, the shift to remote work will also have implications in terms of overall national productivity (and yes, the public sector is part of that equation). Bloomberg reported that early research on the “work-from-home boom” is that the shift to what has been termed “re-optimized working arrangements” will boost productivity in the United States by 5%, mostly due to saving workers in their commuting times. On a country-wide level, recent econometric research has shown that there is a U-shaped relationship between the level of remote work and national productivity. The authors of this study, Behrens et al. (2021), hypothesized that worker productivity overall would be maximized if between 20 and 40% of a nation’s workforce worked remotely for the majority of their work efforts.
Certainly however, the work from home equation will be different for every category of job and for every worker employed in them. As prior studies have shown, there will also be a not insignificant portion of the workforce, somewhere between 10 and 30%, that will only feel comfortable in a traditional five day a week, in-office work arrangement. In some cases, this will be based on age (with older workers tending to favor a more traditional working environment), while in other instances, there may be a multitude of factors involved. These include who is at home, who else is working at home, and what demands the home environment places on workers that can, and often will, distract them from their work.
So at present, the productivity issue is one that is hard to answer, and it may remain so for some time. This makes it difficult, admittedly, for managers and administrators to make solid, evidence-based decisions in regards to shifting work remotely and working through the issues involved with new working arrangements. While both academic and anecdotal evidence seems to back up the notion of improved productivity in working remotely in the United States and indeed, around the world, this can only really be proven over time, making today’s decision calculus all the more tenuous. It is clear however, that certain types of work, those jobs that require concentration and are largely individualized efforts, will tend to be more productive in the remote environment. And this type of work, like computer coding, accounting and technical analysis, which is largely done in isolation in the office anyway, translates very well to working in isolation at home. In contrast, jobs that require a great deal of collaboration and interaction with colleagues, such as more creative work, need the physical collaboration to be optimized, despite all the online meeting tools we have seen employed today.
In the end then, there is no real answer to the productivity question at this point. Only after new work arrangements have been put in place and tried (and yes changed, tinkered with, changed again, and in some cases ended) will we know the true impact of work working remotely on productivity. However, taking into account not just worker preferences for increased levels of remote work, but this likely becoming a critical factor in being able to attract and retain younger, highly qualified and motivated individuals, the productivity equation may have to be looked at not simply in isolation, but in conjunction with organizations’ – public and private alike - abilities to be able to attract and retain talent. This will be especially important in governmental agencies as they not only seek to attract highly qualified and motivated individuals, but to retain them, especially if private sector employers can offer not just higher pay and more perks in most instances, but also more attractive (to them) flexible and remote work arrangements that fit their personal preferences and lifestyles. Again, it cannot be understated just how much that the 1+ year of working remotely for many millions of workers will impact their frame of reference going forward and making decisions about where, for whom, and how to work in the future.
 Morikawa, Masayuki. 2021. “The Productivity of Working from Home: Evidence from Japan.” VoxEU, March 12, 2021. https://voxeu.org/article/productivity-working-home-evidence-japan.
 Bloom, Nicholas, James Liang, John Roberts & Zhichun Jenny Ying. 2013. “Does Working from Home Work?: Evidence from a Chinese Experiment.” National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2013. https://www.nber.org/papers/w18871.
 Reese, Hope. 2021. “More Than 25 Million Non-tech Jobs Expected to Become WFH.” CXO, May 4, 2021. https://www.techrepublic.com/article/more-than-25-million-non-tech-jobs-expected-to-become-wfh/.
 Debczak, Michele. 2016. “Working Remotely Makes You Happier and More Productive.” Mental Floss, May 6, 2016. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/79644/working-remotely-makes-you-happier-and-more-productive.
 Curran, Enda. 2021. “Yes, Working From Home Makes You More Productive, Study Finds.” Bloomberg, April 22, 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-04-22/yes-working-from-home-makes-you-more-productive-study-finds.
 Behrens, Kristian, Sergey Kichko, and Jacques-Francois. 2021. 'Working from Home: Too Much of a Good Thing?'. London, Centre for Economic Policy Research, January 2021. https://cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=15669.
About David Wyld
David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld.
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