Are Remote Workers More Productive? We Finally Have the Answer

Working remotely or “shirking remotely?” Working remotely or “remotely working?” These are the common sentiments of many companies that are hesitant to adopt work from home policies. Lack of oversight for employees is one of the most common reasons businesses are hesitant to embrace working remotely, and it’s easy to see why. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about if remote workers are more productive or not. 

The answer might surprise you. You would think that when you can see and speak with employees in the office all day, it’s easier to keep track of what they are doing, but there’s a flip side to this managerial method: offices provide many distractions, from chatty coworkers to long lunches and frequent trips to the break room.

When one person in the office gets sick, it's likely that everyone will get sick, which hurts productivity.
When one person in the office gets sick, it’s likely that everyone will get sick, which hurts productivity.

Even worse: illnesses spread rapidly around offices. When one employee gets sick, it’s almost guaranteed that the rest of the office will catch whatever they are carrying within the next few weeks, halting productivity and heightening the number of sick days your staff takes.

But what was once seen as a benefit is now a necessity. Even before COVID-19, work from home policies were starting to become the new normal. With the novel coronavirus’s onset, many companies have transitioned to working from home full-time to keep employees safe. This begs the question: will productivity be affected? And if so, how?

Well, there’s good news: the data shows that, in fact, remote workers are more productive, but only if employees are engaged on the job. Let’s explore why.

But first: what exactly is “productivity,” anyway?

What exactly do we mean by the word “productivity?” Is it the frequency at which we accomplish tasks, the quality of our output, or how efficient we are? 

Productivity is typically measured by an individual’s output vs. input over a period of time. One example of this is gross domestic product (GDP) per worker, which measures output by person over the course of a year. However, the ways in which we measure productivity today are much more complex.

To understand productivity, we must first understand our reasons for measuring it.
To understand productivity, we must first understand our reasons for measuring it.

For example, using the methodology above, you might consider a person with a high output productive. However, if their work is low quality, is that person really as productive as you think? The answer is, frankly, no. While this individual might produce a high volume of work, the poor quality leads to a lack of efficiency. Others will spend time resolving errors, revising, and picking up slack where the employee left off.

To truly understand productivity, you must first identify the purpose behind measuring it. Most businesses want a high level of output combined with high-quality work that increases company efficiency. 

In short, productivity is the measure of both the quantity and the quality of an individual’s output with the purpose of increasing efficiency and profits at any company.

So, is the data accurate? Are remote workers really more productive?

The short answer is: yes, but only if employees are engaged.

But let’s dive deeper.

Stanford and Ctrip

A Stanford study by Nicholas Bloom, Eberle Professor in the Department of Economics at Stanford University, and graduate student and founder of Ctrip, James Liang, experimented with giving Ctrip’s call center employees the opportunity to work from home for nine months. The study’s results uncovered much of the misinformation behind productivity when working from home. Nicholas Bloom gave an informative Ted Talk on whether remote workers are more productive that serves as a great resource for companies wary about making the switch. You can view his video below:

If you don’t have time to watch all 14 minutes, here are the highlights of this study:

  • Remote workers made 13.5% more calls than in-office employees, which is the equivalent of almost a full extra day’s worth of work in a given week
  • At-home workers reported higher job satisfaction, and employee attrition decreased by 50% among remote workers
  • Remote workers demonstrated a productivity boost because they eliminated distractions like commuting into the office, changing their work hours to fit their schedules, and worrying about being late
  • Remote workers found it easier to concentrate at home
  • Remote workers took fewer sick days, took less time off, and took shorter breaks

Ctrip also saved $2,000 in rent by reducing the amount of office space they needed each month. However, it’s important to note that this study was conducted at a call center, where success is metric-driven and easy to measure. The study was also conducted over the course of nine months, so it doesn’t offer any data about the longer-term effects of working from home. Furthermore, employees at Ctrip have reported a history of high employee engagement, which contributes to their productivity.

Airtasker

A more recent 2019 survey by Airtasker asked 1,004 full-time employees about their daily work lives. Half of survey respondents work from home the majority of the week. These were the key findings:

  • Remote employees worked 1.4 days more each month compared to their in-office counterparts, which equates to 16.8 (three additional weeks!) of work per year
  • The study found no difference in the quality of work between remote and in-office employees
  • Office workers reported being idle for an average of 37 minutes a day, excluding lunch and routine breaks
  • Remote workers proved to be more productive, only citing 27 minutes of idle time
  • In-office workers were 17% more likely to avoid working when their screen time or mouse movements were tracked
  • Remote workers saved an average of $4,523.04 on fuel each year by eliminating their commutes (and reduced fossil fuel emissions, too!)
  • Remote workers maintained healthier lifestyles by reporting 25 more minutes of physical activity per week than in-office workers
Airtasker employees reported that working from home made them more productive, and they are a highly engaged workforce.
Airtasker employees reported that working from home made them more productive, and they are a highly engaged workforce.

Keep in mind that Airtasker also reported high employee engagement and morale, which is critical when dealing with remote employees. Additionally, the survey was self-reported, meaning employees developed their own answers instead of the company measuring results.

These two studies reflect a single truth: when asking if remote workers are more productive, we should always wonder if remote workers are engaged as well. After all, the two go hand-in-hand. If remote workers are engaged, they are more productive than their in-office counterparts.

5 Ways to Stay Productive While Working from Home

There are lots of factors to consider when implementing a work from home policy. Many worry about the long-term effects of working from home in isolation, while others wonder how to keep remote employees engaged. Here are a few tips on how to stay productive at home for the long-run.

1. Get Up and Move

It’s easier than ever to sit in your comfy office chair all day, only getting up to grab a snack from the kitchen or let the dog outside. However, staying sedentary can actually reduce productivity. Be sure to get up every two hours and move, even if it’s only for five minutes. This actually increases circulation, stimulates your nervous system, and helps activate the parts of your brain that generate new ideas

Remote employees are more productive when they have the chance to get up and move throughout the day.
Remote employees are more productive when they have the chance to get up and move throughout the day.

The Pomodoro Technique — a time management system that encourages people to break their days into 25 minute segments (called pomodoros) — can boost your productivity on the job, no matter where you’re located. Participants are encouraged to take 5 minute breaks every pomodoro, and you can use each break to get up and move. The Pomodoro Technique will be an adjustment for those who like to work uninterrupted for hours at a time, but it’s proven to increase productivity.

An added bonus: regularly moving throughout the day keeps you healthier, which is critical with the onset of the novel coronavirus. Since our movement is far more limited than normal due to shelter-in-place restrictions, keep exercise and wellness top-of-mind when working from home.

Wondering if you should take the time to join that virtual group lunch? It's actually more beneficial than you think.
Wondering if you should take the time to join that virtual group lunch? It’s actually more beneficial than you think.

2. Stay Engaged at Work, Even from Home

If your company is arranging weekly virtual lunches or impromptu virtual happy hours, it can be easy to decline and continue typing away in your home office. But to maintain productivity, it’s important that you take frequent breaks and stay engaged with your coworkers. Otherwise, you’ll end up feeling isolated and disconnected from your work. In fact, remote workers tend to work longer hours with fewer breaks than their in-office counterparts, so these breaks are critical to help break up the day and avoid burnout.

Be sure to make time for social interaction and participate in virtual company gatherings to stay engaged and connected.

Start your day by making to-do lists to prioritize your work.
Start your day by making to-do lists to prioritize your work.

3. Make Lists

Start your day by making a to-do list, and prioritize this list by which tasks are most important and urgent. Are you more productive in the morning? The first few hours of your workday might be best for tackling a big project, or you could prioritize your urgent smaller tasks to get them out of the way, clearing the path for hours of concentration on that big project you need to get done. Either way, the emotional satisfaction of crossing items off of your list is proven to boost productivity and provide a nice little hit of dopamine for the brain — a much needed chemical at a time like this.

4. Recognize Your Coworkers for Their Work

It’s easy to let something as simple as a thank you slip through the cracks when working remotely, but now it is more important than ever to express gratitude to your coworkers. Remote workers are more productive, but the downside to this is that they often feel alienated from the rest of the company,

Sending recognition to others is critical to boost productivity when working remotely.
Sending recognition to others is critical to boost productivity when working remotely.

You can combat this by going out of your way to thank others for their work, whether it’s someone who has helped push a project to the finish line or a coworker who took 10 minutes out of their day to listen to you vent. Recognition is one of the most effective ways to keep employees engaged and excited about their work, and it’s more important than ever.

A great way to boost productivity is to incorporate rewards with recognition. Try using a formal recognition platform that enables you to send points along with a note of appreciation to employees. They can redeem their points for thousands of items and experiences. This added incentive helps keep employees motivated and happy on the job, a much-needed morale boost in today’s working climate.

5. Focus on Work-Life Integration

One of the biggest benefits to working from home is the ability to maintain a flexible schedule. Now that schools are closed and children are home all day, it can be challenging to avoid distractions and balance child care with work. While it’s obviously best to avoid distractions when working from home, this isn’t necessarily a feasible goal right now. 

Work-life integration is a new way of framing work.
Work-life integration is a new way of framing work.

One way to tackle this problem is to allow yourself the flexibility to get distracted and prioritize your family when you need to by focusing on work-life integration, rather than work-life balance. Work-life integration is different from work-life balance because it emphasizes incorporating work into your daily life and routine without treating it as a binary distinction. Work-life balance focuses on work as its own entity rather than a component of living, while work-life integration treats work as one of the many aspects of life, weighed just as carefully as personal life and giving back to the community. 

Here’s how you put this into practice in today’s world: Focus on work after the kids have gone to bed or when they’ve been shuttled into the backyard to burn off some energy. Another scenario is to make sure you allocate enough time to help your partner around the house throughout the day and set aside some time to get extra work done early in the morning or in the evening after dinner. Remember that our lives have been restructured by the sudden onset of COVID-19, and it’s okay to shape your work life around your family life now that the two coexist in the same space.

Stay Engaged, Stay Productive

By now we understand that the key to increased productivity, whether it’s in the office or working from home, is employee engagement. We are at a unique time in history where we can leverage employee engagement to increase productivity overall now that nearly all employees are working remotely. It’s up to us to use this time effectively and keep our employees engaged, no matter where they are working from.

Erin Nelson is a Digital Marketing Manager at Fond with over six years of B2B SaaS marketing experience. Erin has authored dozens of articles on employee rewards and recognition and frequently researches new trends in R&R. In their spare time, you can find them playing music, reading about socioeconomic and gender-based politics, and listening to true crime podcasts.