We are currently in the midst of the largest ever global experiment with remote working. Without question, COVID-19 has accelerated the work from home movement exponentially, with millions of workers transitioning to a home based working environment over night. But will the experiment last beyond lockdown? Yes, but only if we shift our focus away from workplace flexibility to workplace productivity – if we stop debating flexibility with our staff (or our manager) and we start teaching our employees how to be productive.
While the number of people working remotely has increased by 140% since 2005 (Global Workplace Analytics), many employers remain skeptical of ‘flexible’ work. They might pay lip service to it, they might have lovely glossy policies promoting it, but we are all well aware of the career costs involved in requesting or dabbling in a little flexibility. There is a clear stigma attached to the term ‘flexibility’, particularly for men. This is well founded – just look at the penalty paid by women in terms of future earnings capacity and opportunities for career progression after they engage in flexible work in order to care for their children.
So, let’s move away from the ‘flexibility’ debate and engage in a discussion about ‘productivity’. Because the business case for remote working productivity is high, and it’s a winner. And right now, every single employee working from home has the chance to prove it.
There are multiple global studies to reinforce the case for working from home and productivity, including the 2015 Harvard University study of a trial of 16,000 home based employees which found a 13% increase in productivity and performance of those working remotely compared to those working in an office environment. Other benefits of the trial were a 50% reduction in resignations, a reduction in the number of sick days taken, and a 10% increase in participant wages due to higher bonus payments.
Another study, the 2019 IWG Global Workplace Survey found that 85% of businesses found that productivity increased with remote working options. Similarly, in 2018 The FlexJobs 7th Annual Super Survey found that 65% of respondents were more productive working from home than at a traditional workplace. This result was attributed to a number of factors including fewer distractions and interruptions and less stress from not having to commute.
So, let’s look at some of the biggest office based productivity problems:
Open plan offices are a productivity killer. Yes they are great for collaboration – but do we really need to be collaborating all of the time? How many times have you found yourself saying – I love getting into the office early because I can actually get some work done? Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that the average office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes and it can take up to 23 minutes to get back to the task they were interrupted from. These interruptions and loss of focus add up to 6.2 hours of lost time a day. No wonder you aren’t getting any work done in the office.
On top of this, every time you are interrupted, your brain is forced to multitask – that is, do two things at once. The ability to successfully multitask is possessed by less that 2.5% of the human race. These beings are so rare they are called Super Taskers. For the rest of us mere mortals multitasking is fundamentally a stop-start-stop-start process of inefficiency. It costs you time, it is error generating and ultimately it results in a poorer outcome and/or hours of rework. For the data driven, multitasking will cost you as much as 40% of your productivity – the equivalent to dropping 10 IQ points. It’s easy to see why working remotely is so attractive.
The commute is another productivity killer. The 14th Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey released in 2019 indicated that the average city worker spends 66 minutes a day on the commute. Not only is this 330 minutes of lost time down the drain each and every week, but from a productivity perspective the survey also found that workers who travel 2 or more hours a day for their work had lower levels of job satisfaction and were less satisfied with their working hours, their work-life balance, and their pay. Unhappy workers equals lower productivity.
If nothing else, Covid-19 has offered us up the opportunity to work differently, and to think differently about how and where we want to work in the future. This gigantic global remote working experiment can last beyond Covid-19 if we shift our focus away from ‘flexibility’ towards ‘productivity’, because the productivity business case for remote working is compelling.
Written by Kate Christie. Have you read?
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