In earlier blogs in this space, we have looked at the productivity of remote workers. As we speak, many organizations are exploring ‘hybrid’ types of working, looking to strike the fine balance between office-based, face-to-face work, on the one hand and WFH (working from home), on the other.
Many surveys of employees and employers found that remote work did not reduce productivity; on the contrary. An article in The Economist highlights a study* of more than 10,000 employees at an Asian technology company between April 2019 and August 2020 that paints a different picture (‘Working hard for the money, Economist, June 6, 2021). The research certainly concluded that the employees were working hard. Total hours worked were 30% higher than before the pandemic, including an 18% increase in working outside normal hours. But this extra effort did not translate into any rise in output.
Despite the considerable extra working time, both employers and employees felt they were producing as much as before. Looking at productivity as output per working hour, this fell by 20%. The interesting thing is why this happened. The researchers were able to analyse how much time the employees spent in “collaboration hours”, defined as various types of meetings, and how much time they had as “focus hours”, uninterrupted by calls or emails, where they could concentrate on their tasks.
Despite working longer hours, the employees had less focus time than before the pandemic. Instead, all their extra time was taken up by meetings. The Economist calls this Bartleby’s law: 80% of the time of 80% of the people in meetings is wasted. This study certainly offers evidence for that proposition.
One possibility is that managers are less certain of their team’s commitment and are holding more meetings to check on them. Another is that managers call so many meetings to validate their own existence when they are not in the office.
However, the academics suggest the greater need for meetings is the result of the greater difficulty of co-ordinating employees when they are working remotely—another hint that the process is inefficient. When working remotely, employees also spend less time being evaluated, trained and coached. This seems a raw deal for the employees. They received no more money for the overtime. Although they saved commuting time, this did not offset the extra hours spent in meetings.
Not all workers behaved the same way. Those who had worked at the company the longest tended to be more productive, suggesting that they found it easier to navigate the hazards of homeworking. Employees with children worked around 20 minutes a day more than those without, implying an even greater fall in their productivity, presumably because they were distracted by child-care duties.
So, does this mean companies will abandon remote working altogether, even its hybrid version? It is hardly surprising that there would be some teething and co-ordination problems involved with remote working. The practice was, after all, imposed suddenly. And the research shows that employees were able to achieve as much output with slightly less “focus time” than they had at the office.
The real source of inefficiency—surprise, surprise—was the time spent in meetings. And the answer is simple; don’t call as many, and manage them well. (“Working hard for the money”, the Economist, June 6, 2021).
* “Work from home & productivity: evidence from personnel & analytics data on IT professionals”, by Michael Gibbs, Friederike Mengel and Christoph Siemroth
Fredrik Fogelberg is a chartered Organisational Psychologist specializing in leadership development and team facilitation in international organizations. He has over 30 years of international experience in the corporate world and as a consultant.