There has been a succession of surveys during the pandemic showing that people working from home are more productive than when they work in an office. Or at least, feel that they are. In fact, there has been a steady stream of such findings since the 1990s in research into teleworking (as it used to be called, and still is in many countries).
There’s also a current within academic studies, sometimes picked up gleefully by the media, reporting that working from home leads to work intensification. People are working longer hours for no extra pay. In sociological research and gender studies, this seems to be quite a dominant theme and is often linked to exploitation and oppression of women in particular due to work-family conflict.
At the same time, studies almost invariably find that the majority of people are happier and more satisfied with their working lives when they work from home.
Let’s get to the bottom of this – is working from home actually more productive, or are people just working longer hours? And why if they are being exploited do people report they are happy to work from home and want to keep doing it?
What lies behind the average increase in working hours?
On average, people “give back” around half of their commute time in additional hours worked, according to surveys. Around 45-50 minutes. Some researchers connect this with a shift in the psychological contract between employees and employers. This interpretation sees remote working being recognised as a benefit by the employee, and they, as it were, give more effort in return.
Of course, as with all averages, it masks great variations. There will be people who find it hard to switch off, and there will be people who work faster without distractions and work fewer hours than when in the office. But overall, studies do tend to show an increase in hours.
One factor I’ve not seen taken into account in studies is that until the pandemic, the majority of those working from home were people with more seniority in organisations or skilled autonomous professionals. As such, they tend to put in a certain amount of discretionary overtime anyway – and often from did so from home even when their working day was spent in the office. How these factors come together has not been explored.
But surveys during the pandemic, when there is a wider profile of people working from home, also find self-reported additional hours. But are people doing any significant additional work during this extra time?
Given that people overall report being happier with their work and having control over their schedule, it’s equally likely that people may feel less pressured about their work and spread their tasks out in a more leisurely way, while making a net time saving overall from not having to commute.
‘work intensification’ may in practice be the opposite – a more relaxed approach that speaks of work de-intensification.
So apparent work intensification may in practice be the opposite – a more relaxed approach that speaks of work de-intensification.
It could be argued that if this is the case people are coasting – but if overall they are happier, less stressed and more engaged while delivering what is asked of them, how much is that a problem?
People may be more productive, but extra time worked is not in itself evidence of this
Some researchers and commentators have interpreted additional time worked as signs of increased productivity – or at least of an increase in productive activity. I suspect that this is a factor behind the self-reporting of increased productivity in the cascade of surveys over the past two years.
But first we need to be clear about what productivity actually is.
Increasing productivity is basically about achieving more or better output with the same or reduced input.
If you produce the same level and quality of output but take an extra hour a day to do it, that is not increasing productivity. If you produce more but at the same ratio of input to output, that is not increased productivity either. The company may be producing more in total, but the hours of input per deliverable have remained the same.
Counting hours of labour input is the basic unit for national figures of productivity – and one of the reasons why they are of limited value. That’s because time is not the only relevant factor. Other input factors include resources (materials, technology, workplace, etc), skills, collaboration and motivation. So reducing the amount or cost of resources while achieving the same output increases productivity. Improving the quality of resources, skills, collaboration and motivation can also improve productivity – i.e. by increasing the amount or quality of the output.
This is where smarter working techniques come in. If your remote working day is filled with old-style meetings over Zoom, or producing additional emails and pointless PowerPoint presentations, you may well be reducing productivity even though you are doing more things.
If, on the other hand, you rethink meetings and collaboration to focus on purpose and output, you can streamline collaboration while increasing its effectiveness. Then people can either finish the day early, develop new initiatives or contribute to upskilling colleagues.
Similarly, if all work processes and practices are challenged with the question, “How can we do this better?”, many opportunities for improvement and transformation will be found.
Then we’ll really be talking about boosting productivity, wherever people are based. And not just focusing on time.