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Common Misconceptions of Remote Work Productivity

Common Misconceptions of Remote Work Productivity

Two Harvard University scholars (Emanuel and Harrington, 2021) completed a study on the work habits of customer service staff working from home. The participants were employees working as customer service agents for a Fortune 500 retailer.

The researchers then used the data and compared the work habits of remote workers to those who reported to the office. Previously a research project such as this would be hard to accomplish. Why? Because often researchers are stuck comparing oranges to apples. It was difficult to match productivity rates by same title, function, job tasks and company.

Top talent maintains higher productivity regardless of setting

In this case, the productivity rate of employees completing the same task and functions served as the dependent variable. Worker productivity based upon location of the worker (working at home or working in the office) represented the independent variable.

Their findings were interesting.

  • Former in office workers who were required by their employers to work at home increased their productivity by 7.5%
  • Remote workers who initially self-selected to work from home without a corporate mandate to do so were about 15% less productive than their in office colleagues
  • Workers who sought remote specific jobs when notified that the employer adopted remote work policies were later to be found to be almost 12% less productive than their in office colleagues.

Initially WFH with low output may self select WFH jobs

When analyzing the complex data patterns, the Harvard researchers concluded the following.  

  • When offering remote work, employers may attract workers who could be upwards of almost 19% less productive than in office colleagues

Career advancement key for top talent irrespective of setting

The research hypothesize that the differences in productivity between workers who prefer to work from home and those who prefer to work in the office is due to these assumptions:

  • top talent is fearful of being overlooked for career advancement opportunities because they are not in the physical presence of their supervisor or management
  • remote jobs may attract workers with characteristics which make them less productive

Harrington and Emanuel also determined that their findings of outcome variations were similar to studies by Linos, 2018, of remote and in office U.S. Patent Office workers. Further, to describe this phenomenon to others, the term ‘adverse selection’ was coined. Adverse selection (also called anti-selection), broadly is defined by Britannica Money “to describe a market process in which buyers or sellers  are able to use their private knowledge of the risk factors involved  to maximize their outcomes.”

Prevent employer adverse selection

Human resources, insurance and risk advisory professional, such as Lead Change Group, have argued that adverse selection can occur leading to employers inadvertently “push good employees away” and encourage their best employees to leave. Lead Changes suggests there are a few ways in which employers may push top talent out the door.

  • holding on to outdated or preferred business processes that have lost their effectiveness or outlived their useful lives
  • maintaining the belief that ‘hiring just like me’ is the best approach for achieving and determining ‘good fit’
  • refusing to adopt to change and lack of openness to creativity and innovation
  • holding negative views of potential employees and current employees who are more thoughtful and less extroverted than their colleagues
  • considering that family obligations (childcare, eldercare, self care) should take a back seat at all times 

Emanuel and Harrington suggests there are far ranging implications. The results of the productivity data show that a majority of workers who prefer to work from home rather than in a typical office setting, generally produce less (both in a traditional office and in a remote setting). And, conversely, employees who have preference to report to a traditional in office setting, will generally produce more output (both in an office setting and when working from home).

3 tips for attracting, employing and retaining top talent

The key for employers of all sectors of the economy is keeping career opportunities open. This is true for employers who seek to introduce or expand their remote work policies. Further, this information is applicable to human resources professionals, recruiters and employers assessing remote, hybrid and mixed location jobs.

Employers must conduct a thorough analysis of their personnel pool, communication, hiring, promotion and retention practices. Employing firms needs to ask the question, are systems in place to:

  • identify top producers (in office, remote, hybrid, mixed location)?
  • communicate to top talent the availability of promotion and advancement regardless of work location?
  • showcase champions for presenting traditional and alternative paths to leadership?

These findings and conclusions bring a lot of factors to mind. First, is it possible that the attitudes and experiences of employees working in customer service are generalizable to the entire working population?

Not all remote work research findings are generalizable

To answer this question, Zippia informs us that  almost 70% of all customer service agents are women. The are middle aged (40 years). And, a majority are white (55%). The next most populus group is Hispanic (21.2%) followed by Black (11.6%), and Asian (6.3%).

On the other hand, Forbes shared data demonstrating the demographics of the typical remote worker as young adult (aged 24-35).  Thirty-eight percent are male. McKinsey reports 45%  of full time remote workers hold an Advanced degree while 40%, a Bachelors. Additionally, due to the industry type that heavily employ workers working at home (information technology, marketing, and finance). Because they are highly skilled, they can earn on average up to “$19,000 more than in-office workers.”


That said. There are two messages. One for employers, “ensure that top talent regardless of work location is given comparable chances for promotion” (when deserved). The other for employees, “refrain from blindly holding preference for remote work or in office work” without considering your own traits and the distinct attributes of the specific job and company.


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