Remote work, pretend work and productivity

Your boss determines whether remote work is perceived as pretend work in your company. Elon Musk tweeted recently, “go pretend to work somewhere else.” So we ask this question, is remote work pretend work?  I guess we need to look at the perceptions of the person signing your paycheck. 

Employers consider these factors: productivity, costs to management, capital costs, corporate culture, employee recruitment and retention. For now, we’ll emphasize productivity as Musk may have implied that remote workers have lower productivity than traditional workers reporting to the office.

Before we address Musk’s perceptions directly, let’s see what the research says about remote worker productivity.

Research on remote worker productivity

A University of Chicago working paper, “Work from Home & Productivity: Evidence from Personnel & Analytics Data on IT Professionals”  discusses productivity. Although the paper focused on information technology professionals working remotely for a large Asian company, there are a few points generalizable across many sectors of the international remote working employee pool.

Ten thousand remote workers, skilled in information technology participated.  Briefly, here were their findings:

  • The total number of hours worked per day increased.
  • There was an increase in the number of hours worked outside of the normal business day (by 18%).
  • The average output as defined by productivity decreased in the range of eight to almost 20 percent.
  • A non-employee dependent component of lowered rates of productivity were the increased time spent coordinating with colleagues to schedule activities and meetings.
  • An employee dependent component of lowered rates of productivity were home, family, and child related interruptions.
  • Remote workers with children in the home increased their work hours more than employees without children in the home.
  • The output (productivity) of childless workers working remotely declined less than remote workers with children in the home.
  • Employees working from home communicated less internally, with fewer colleagues and business enterprise units and externally.
  • The supervisors mentored, coached and held fewer one-on-one meetings with their remotely working subordinates.

A working paper from Harvard University titled “ Working from Home during COVID-19: Evidence from Time-Use Studies,” analyzed how remote workers in the knowledge industry utilized their time. There were almost 1,200 knowledge workers working remotely in the U.S. who participated in the study.

In short, the researchers revealed the following information:

  • Significant reduction in time spent commuting were re-allocated to a corresponding increase in  in time spent working and or spent on personal activities (especially during the morning block of 6:00am to 9:00am).
  • The reallocations of commuting time saved differed depending upon job type (manager vs. nonmanager).
  • The data suggest that managers reallocated commuting time saved to more time spent in work-related meetings.
  • Managers working for large companies did not recoup commuting time and instead increased the span of hours in which they worked and /or increase their total working time.
  • Managers working for small and mid-sized companies were able to recoup commuting time saved and reallocate to personal activities.
  • The data demonstrated that non-managers reallocated commuting time saved to more time spent on personal activities.
  • Working days are longer from the traditional 9:00am to 5:00pm to potentially working up to 6:00pm to 10:00pm at night.
  • The changes in work day habits of employees working remotely involved the following work-related activities: writing, reading, and replying to emails; engaging with colleagues interactively through phone calls, videoconferences, meetings; higher order cognitive functioning performed alone that involved analysis and preparation; interacting with clients through business meals, leisure and entertainment activities.
  • Modifications to working style from longer time spent on specific tasks to breaking down the same tasks into more discrete chunks, lessening the time required per chunk. This result in the same amount of time overall spent on each task.

So far, we have reviewed working from home research with participants in Asia and the US. Now, let’s turn to research from Australia.  The Productivity Commission, Commonwealth of Australia prepared a report titled, “Working from Home- Research Paper.” Some of the major findings were as follows:

  • About 75% of the workers who work from home during COVID-19 self-reported that they are at least as productive as when they reported to a traditional office.
  • Employers perceived the output of remote workers to be slightly lower. However, the most frequent response given relating to productivity  from either group (employees and employers) was ‘about the same.’

The remote work option is a privilege extended to the best

The key take-away from the Australian report is that employers and supervisors extend more favorable options to remote workers who are considered more productive than their colleagues. This trait of human nature is consistent regardless the location of the worker, albeit reporting to work in a traditional office space, hybrid or working from home remotely. The spoils go to the deserving.  According to Barrero, Bloom and Davis, firms in the zeal to maintain levels of profitability, product quality, customer satisfaction and employee productivity that are consistent with pre COVID-19 operations, may discontinue wide scale working from home policies. (2021).

They may instead choose to selectively offer their most productive workers the option to work from home.

Remote work can lead to negative selection

The National Bureau of Economic Research, in its report, “Why Working From Home will Stick,” in citing other research, made the following revelations:

  • In a study on the work habits of Chinese call-center workers who worked from home, a 13% in productivity was realized. Most of the gains were due to the increase number of calls per minute and remote workers taking fewer breaks.
  • A similar study of US call center workers also yielded increases in productivity, upwards of 8%.  For this particular study however was the ‘negative selection’  or ‘adverse selection’ economic tendency. This means that workers with the greatest incentive to search for and obtain remote work tend to be those with below average ability and/or productivity relative to those who do not actively seek to work remotely.

Remote work may reduce visibility and chances for promotion

But getting back to Elon Musk’s musings. The final research work, Working Remotely, Selection, Treatment and Market Provision of Remote Work, Harvard University, may give us a clue.  There are several researchers who found increases in remote worker productivity, increased time spent working, and an increase in the span of day and night when those working remotely worked.  Harrington, at Harvard University found that in spite of these positive contributions to output and remote worker productivity, workers working from home remotely received fewer chances to be promoted. She theorized that as top tier, highly desirable workers become concerned about limited chances for career advancement they might avoid remote work assignments. And consequently, as those who demonstrate the highest levels of productivity prefer traditional in-office assignments so that they can be seen and heard; the less productive workers will begin to congregate the remote worker pool. Leaving “latently less productive workers.”

The results of this research is consistent with data from Prodoscore. The company evaluated 105 million points of data from 30,000 participants. They found that if an employee experienced high output in the office, they were also likely to maintain their productivity while working from home. And conversely, if an employee slacked at the office with very little output to show at the end of the day, they were also equally likely to slack off while working from home.

So, in closing it boils down to two things. (1). If the uber boss of your organization believes that remote work is the wave of the future; selecting the remote work option is the way to go. However, if the president of your company is Elon Musk who espouses the belief that remote workers are pretending to work; head back to the office immediately and sofort. And, (2) if you are a member of the highly productive pool of workers, the lack of visibility may not be a death knell afterall.