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Does Remote Work Actually Decrease Productivity?

Do big splashy headlines paint a real picture of remote work? Not when the research is misleading.

You’ve probably read some flavor of the following headlines:

  • Fully Remote New Hires Show 18% Drop in Productivity, Study Says
  • Remote Work Might Not Be As Productive As Once Thought, New Studies Show
  • Working From Home Leads To Decreased Productivity, Research Suggests

Almost all of them reference research compiled by the WFH Research Consortium, led by Nick Bloom at Stanford. Infuriatingly, these headlines don’t focus on the actual takeaways of his work. Instead they fixate on a stat buried deep in the paper, and take it completely out of context.

Are Call Centers Representative Of All Knowledge Work?

The Stanford Study entitled, “The Evolution of Working from Home” looks at broad trends in remote work over the last few decades, and cites a lot of studies from 2020-2023. 

One of these research papers from the Spring of 2020 looks at what happened when a call center moved from being colocated in March 2020 to going remote as a result of the pandemic in April 2020. Researchers compared statistics on productivity between the two months and found that moving the call center’s work remotely decreased call volume by 8%. Another two studies that looked at call centers in India during the same timeframe recorded 18% decreases from randomized trials of workers moving remote vs in an office setting.

That 10-20% decrease in productivity statistic is based on those 3 studies of call centers. That’s it. 

If you’re shaking your head thinking, “But wait, I don’t work in a call center,” or “Hang on, they’re making a sweeping statement on remote work based on a couple of studies from call centers?” You’re right. 

It’s downright wild that the mainstream media is making broad claims about remote work productivity based on a few pandemic era studies of call centers.

Is A Pandemic The Right Time To Measure Productivity?

Let’s also consider the timeframe of these studies. All of them look at data collected from 2020-2023. Phrased another way, data collection begins at the start of the pandemic, and ends around the time the World Health Organization announced the end of the pandemic.

Let’s think back to the early days of the pandemic. 

  • Were we focused on work? Or were we focused on this new deadly disease threatening our health, safety, and surroundings?
  •  Did we lean into our work or were we globally distracted by shelter in place mandates, schools and childcare centers closing, and our loved ones falling sick? 
  • Were we excited by new projects or constantly fearful in a state of heightened anxiety over daily uncertainties involving our very survival?

You get my point. For a researcher, the pandemic provided a fantastic opportunity to study before and after effects of changing working environments. The only problem is that the research does not recognize a huge externality that was causing the physical change, and was likely impacting other aspects of work like productivity.

I wouldn’t be surprised if studies in the next few years of companies implementing thoughtful remote working practices in a normal environment show different data around productivity.

So What Did We Actually Learn?

The conclusions in the Stanford paper are as follows:

  • Remote work is  up 500% since 2019
  • Fully remote work is cheaper for firms, but can affect productivity
  • Hybrid work  improves retention without  a loss in productivity
  • While remote work has been on a steady upward trend starting before the pandemic, its prevalence will continue to increase in coming years

So rather than fixate on a clickbait worthy stat that, taken out of context, makes leaders setting workplace policies consider taking away privileges that will in fact hurt their businesses long term, let’s look at the actual data.

And the actual data, while nascent, shows a lot of positive trends. It also shows that remote and hybrid work are here to stay.

Let's fix the way we work.

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