Are employees more productive when working from home? The answer to that question seems to depend on who’s asked.
“There’s a perception of productivity, and there’s actual productivity,” said Don Harkey, owner and CEO of People Centric Consulting Group. “A lot of employers focus on perceived productivity instead of actual productivity: ‘If you’re not in the office, I don’t know what you’re doing, so I presume you’re not being as productive.’”
But there are all different kinds of work, Harkey notes, and some of it benefits from lively interaction with co-workers, while some of it thrives in independence.
“The question is, which environment is the right environment to be most productive?” Harkey said.
Businesses that began allowing work-from-home and hybrid, a mix of home and office, options during pandemic stay-at-home orders today are faced with workers who found they liked having that kind of flexibility and autonomy. The Future of Work Study 2021 by global IT services and consulting firm Accenture found that 83% of workers prefer a hybrid work model, and 63% of high-growth companies already have adopted a “productivity anywhere” workforce model.
In a time of workforce shortages, many employers are feeling the pressure to give workers what they want.
A case study in hybridity is found in Jacob Brower. The owner of Archer’s Bow Media & Marketing, Brower has a workforce of just one. The former newspaper executive now works alone in his ad agency, which has a brick-and-mortar location, yet he also pursues a hybrid option, working sometimes at home and sometimes at his favorite coffee shop.
“I’ve never liked feeling chained to a desk,” Brower said. “I like being in the office when it makes sense and not being in the office when it makes sense.”
Brower was publisher of the Monett Times and Cassville Democrat before he began Archer’s Bow in 2018.
“I never cared when my employees were in the office as long as their work was done right, and done on time,” he said.
Brower agrees with Harkey: The work itself dictates the best conditions for it, and that may be home, at the office or at a coffeehouse with a cup of joe.
“Sometimes, it’s advantageous to be somewhere I’m not at every day,” Brower said. “It’s sometimes easier to stay on task when there are other people around – to soak in the energy and hear music that someone else picked. There are other times I like isolation and a desk. I just gauge my mood and adjust accordingly.”
Harkey suggests most employers would do well to consider a flexible workplace.
“I’ve worked with employers who said their employees wouldn’t be able to do their jobs because they couldn’t oversee their work,” Harkey said.
He noted, though, that flexible work environments make workers feel autonomous, which in turn makes them feel empowered.
“Management sometimes tries to take it on themselves and figure it all out. When you challenge a team with productivity metrics, with cost metrics, and share what you’re seeing as a manager, if they solve the problem, they’re going to own whatever environment you decide to work with,” he said. “If you decide it as a manager, you have to convince them you were right.”
An agent with Liberty Mutual Insurance, Lorna Hammock is familiar with the “make it work” mindset of a hybrid employee. She noted that maintaining continuity from one workspace to another can be a challenge.
But Hammock plans to continue hybrid working – or even strictly working from home – in the future.
“The lack of commute, the cost savings of food, etc., and the overall ability to be productive seem favorable to continuing in my current situation,” she said.
Bypassing the commute is one of the big advantages many workers are finding with home-based work. The University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics surveyed 10,000 Americans ages 20-64 in mid-2020. They found working from home accounted for 52% of employment in the pandemic. When average commuting times were calculated for this group, the study found they gained over 62 million hours per day nationally. From mid-March to mid-September 2020, the aggregate time savings was more than 9 billion hours.
How did workers use this time? One-third of them devoted extra time working on their primary job, the study found.
A potential problem of home working is lack of engagement. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report found employee engagement – already low, at 22% – decreased by two percentage points from 2019 to 2020. Workers’ daily stress rose to 43% from 38% in the same period.
Engagement is not only an issue that affects worker happiness and productivity. It also affects the bottom line. Companies with high employee engagement are 22% more profitable, according to research by workplace consulting firm Smarp.
Karen Brown works at Brewer Science Inc. as project manager of the semiconductor business. She’s been there for 17 years, most of them as a hybrid worker.
“I think the pandemic was a good thing because people who hadn’t done hybrid work gained a greater appreciation for making sure hybrid and remote employees do feel connected,” she said.
And maintaining engagement is both an important and enjoyable aspect of hybrid work, Brown said.
“One of the wonderful things we’ve done during the pandemic are companywide ‘coffee and conversation’ meetings via Microsoft Teams where people can just build those connections,” she said. “I think they plan to continue those even as more people come back into the office.”
Harkey said employers who allow a hybrid or home working option must find some way to spark engagement and to replicate those “water cooler conversations” they might have at the office, and online tools can sometimes do that.
“We’ve seen tools like Teams or Slack serve really well as virtual water coolers,” he said.
Harkey said he thinks the workplace landscape has permanently changed with the pandemic.
“I don’t think it’s going to go to everyone working at home or everyone working in the office – it’s going to be permanently flexible and hybrid,” he said.
“It’s going to be good if management can help employees do it the right way.”
Read the profiles of this year's honorees.