Long before it became the pervasive norm, remote work was a proliferating trend.
For those who now find themselves navigating unfamiliar ground in the World of WFH, this far less of a challenge than in the past. Teams have been experimenting with and refining the art of distributed coworking for years, with a number of technologies and techniques emerging to support the fast-growing convention.
The disruption currently taking place is heightened for enterprises and globally distributed organizations, vested in firmly entrenched infrastructures and ingrained operating procedures. As we get you up to speed on the latest research, analysis, and insights around remote work productivity, we’ll focus on the most critical frontier: adapting and implementing best practices at scale.
Remote Work Productivity Trends of 2020
From underlying patterns to employee preferences to proven leadership methods, these are the most noteworthy trends – as we see them – when it comes to understanding and maximizing remote work productivity.
Work flexibility was on its way to ruling the world of business long before the pandemic.
In its 2019 Global Work Trends report, LinkedIn Talent Solutions cited work flexibility as the second-strongest undercurrent in the world of recruiting and HR. At the time, LinkedIn data showed a 78% increase in job posts on the platform mentioning work flexibility since 2016.
This is consistent with indicators from other sources. A report released this year by GetApp suggests that the number of people working remotely on at least a weekly basis has increased by nearly 400% over the past decade. Fast Company dubbed remote work “the new normal” a year ago.
Naturally, the slowly ascending curve has seen a sharp spike of late. “The total number of remote workers is the highest we have ever observed,” wrote Ray Canzaneze, threat research director for the cloud security platform Netskope, in mid-March.
Once employees have had the option to work remotely, they don’t want to lose it.
This is a reality that business leaders will have to contend with going forward. Many employees are now experiencing the ability to work from home for the first time. Research suggests they might not be keen on losing that capability.
For its State of Remote Work 2020 report, Buffer and AngelList surveyed nearly 3,500 remote workers, and found that 98% would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.
This near-unanimity is the “one statistic that remains unequivocal each year,” according to the report.
Work/life balance may be the biggest barrier to overcome.
In the same survey as above, Buffer asked remote workers about the biggest challenges they face in this setting. “Unplugging after work,” was the most common response, which seems to represent a fairly common sentiment. Another survey from Airtasker found that 29% of remote workers struggle to find work/life balance, compared to 23% of those working in an office.
These responses were collected before guidelines around shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines forced scores of workers into WFH mode for the first time, so it’s fair to assume this challenge is now magnified as people try to navigate it on the fly. While video-conferencing and chat tools are helping alleviate some of the other prevalent hurdles in remote culture — namely, team collaboration and connectivity — work/life balance is trickier, and a worthy area of focus for organizational leaders.
The popular method for addressing this concern is finding ways to create clear structure. Owl Labs offers a number of suggestions, including:
- Set a schedule, and try to stick to it.
- Use communication tools to indicate your online and offline hours.
- Use personal errands or activities to take breaks throughout the day.
- Work in a space that’s distinct from the rest of your home.
Managers might be wise to provide their team members with a set of best practices including the above, and can also work toward creating structure themselves. Keep in mind, though, the importance of flexibility at this time; people may have heightened familial obligations or other pressing needs in light of the circumstances. There is also some evidence that being overly reliant on set schedules can make us less productive. Speaking of which…
Research has shown that employees are more productive when working remotely … but that might be in flux.
Plenty of research suggests that remote workers are more productive. According to Global Workplace Analytics concluded based on a synthesis of research that “empirical evidence shows productivity increases between 15 and 55%” and that “national productivity would increase $334 billion to $467 billion a year through telecommuting.” Stanford once conducted an extensive two-year study in China, which “showed an astounding productivity boost among the telecommuters equivalent to a full day’s work.”
Remote workers tend to self-report higher levels of productivity, too. For example, the 2019 Remote Work Report by Zapier found 42% of knowledge workers saying they’re more productive when working at home. Airtasker’s survey found remote workers have fewer idle minutes per day, and work 1.4 more days per month than office workers.
The reasons for increased productivity in a WFH setting are easy enough to comprehend: no commute, fewer meetings, fewer distractions from chit-chatty coworkers.
But there’s an important caveat at play: this research was generally conducted under normal circumstances, and often with the presumptive premise that working from home is an option rather than a mandate. While we’re too early in the current state of affairs to have much substantive data on this altered state, experts unsurprisingly warn that working from home full-time in the midst of these uncertain times will upend some of our previous conceptions about productivity and focus.
“It’s tough enough to be productive in the best of times let alone when we’re in a global crisis,” said Chris Bailey, author and productivity consultant, in a recent New York Times article. “The idea that we have so much time available during the day now is fantastic, but these days it’s the opposite of a luxury. We’re home because we have to be home, and we have much less attention because we’re living through so much.”
“Accountability from home” may be the next big trend.
This is the biggest obstacle that business leaders now face, especially when shifting large, distributed workforces into remote settings and trying to maintain the kind of visibility and accountability that inherently exist in a large office or campus.
“At work, our behavior is public. Work makes our behavior visible to other people to help get us to get things done,” writes behavioral scientist Kristen Berman at Fast Company. “Accountability is really just expecting you might have to justify your actions to others in relation to a preexisting norm. And it works.”
As office work moves fully remote due to coronavirus, Berman argues, “The very thing that allows us to be productive is changing.”
So now, supervisors walk a delicate line: creating a line-of-sight from afar without creating a “big brother” vibe that can alienate employees, making them feel micromanaged and untrusted. In part, the solution lies in replicating the social accountability Berman referenced by promoting communication and collaboration, while celebrating group accomplishments.
Beyond emphasizing remote culture, it’s critical to find the right mix of tools and tech for your organization. Identify software that your people actually enjoy using (candid and anonymous feedback will help). Managers can keep an eye on usage rates and other specific measures to gain confidence that workers are staying present and active, while not needing to constantly check in.
Our virtual office platform at Sococo is designed for this very purpose, providing a casual and user-friendly interface where team members can congregate digitally, share ideas, and keep one another on-task. You can try it out for free to experience what it’s like to work in your own online office.
Whether it’s with Sococo or any other number of tools and techniques gaining prominence, business leaders are wise to think proactively about addressing these trends and positioning themselves for a future where flexible remote work simply isn’t going away.
Managing work/life balance, helping combat feelings of stress and isolation, and empowering accountability from home are emerging as three of the most pivotal managerial focuses going forward.