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Is Remote Work a Productivity Disaster?

October 27, 2020 Collaboration and Productivity
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

In a recent opinion piece for CNBC, Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, called working from home a "productivity disaster." That's despite his own two-year study that showed that working from home made employees 13% more productive and 50% less likely to quit.

The reason he's now skeptical was that his study only took into account employees who were able to work from home in a dedicated home office, not a bedroom or any other room that others had access to. That flies in the face of the experience of many remote workers who are now sharing common rooms with partners, kids and pets. 

For some, remote work has come with benefits: shorter commutes, more time on task and an increase in valuable family time. But for many C-suite executives and business owners, the mere mention of remote work causes goosebumps and spells chaos. Even though many companies jumped on the remote work bandwagon, some did it reluctantly and others can’t wait for things to go back to normal in the corporate office. 

The remote work jury is divided. While the benefits of working from home are tangible for many, a cookie-cutter approach to remote work might not cut it. So the question remains: Is remote work a disaster for productivity?

The Drawbacks of Remote Work

Despite the positive press about remote work, it might not suit everybody. For some workers, social isolation, uncertainty, burnout and the pandemic lockdown can combine into a dangerous cocktail. 

Camaraderie is a fundamental part of work and in remote settings, this often falls apart as people focus on their tasks. The lack of water-cooler chats and lunch hours makes building team cohesion more difficult. “If managers are not all about promoting employee engagement, the lack of face-to-face interaction can weaken the camaraderie that is so vital for great teamwork,” said Vincent Scaramuzzo, CEO at Glastonbury, Conn.-based Ed-Exec, an education-focused search firm. 

Distributed teams are also more prone to communication breakdowns, he said, whether that's brought about by technical, personal or cultural barriers. "Getting a remote team to be on the same page is not always easy, which can lead to costly project delays.”

Sometimes, just being able to talk to coworkers works wonders and communicating clearly can break down cultural or technical barriers. However, unless C-suite executives get on board with remote communication initiatives and enact a plan to make it happen it will remain just that: a plan.

Related Article: Building a New Model for Remote Work

Is Remote Work More Productive?

One of the main productivity killers in remote work is not having a defined work schedule.

Adam Rowles, founder at Perth, Australia-based Inbound Marketing Australia, said creating and sticking to a defined work schedule is the key to overcoming household distractions and improving productivity.

"Workers need to set aside large blocks of time where they can focus on work without interruptions, and this can be accomplished by sharing family duties with partners,” he said.

For remote workers, the collaboration of the other members of the family becomes a must to be able to make the most of their time. Having many things to do around the house can siphon time away from work-related tasks. 

But for other people, remote work is a productivity blessing. The key is understanding the difference between feeling productive and actually being productive, said Scaramuzzo. "The feeling of being busy is often an illusion that justifies not focusing on the most critical tasks that could propel the business to the next level," he said. "Nevertheless, when people work remotely, they focus on delivering clear results rather than working for the work’s sake.” 

Being able to work and focus on results rather than focusing on simply being present is fundamental. For C-suite executives, this means retooling work practices and focusing on what gets done as opposed to how much time someone spends online. 

Related Article: Riding the Employee Engagement Rollercoaster 

Tips for Making Remote Work More Productive

While remote work has its promoters and detractors, the truth is that most workers want to be as productive as possible. Here's a short list of tips to squeeze every ounce of productivity from the day:

  • Make sure managers and workers share the same vision: Ensure employees understand the big picture and how the work they’re doing impacts the company as a whole.
  • Follow the 80/20 principle: Keep in mind that not all the tasks have equal importance. Analyze which tasks move the needle and use those findings to set priorities.
  • Have weekly meetups and ask for updates: These kinds of meetings help teams bond and stay updated on both work and workers' personal lives. 
  • Set guidelines: Teams can only achieve deadlines if they establish a calendar and stick to it. Strive to complete work before the date comes.

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