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On Productivity and Remote Work

Early in the pandemic, I wrote a big piece for the New Yorker about the potential implications of our sudden shift to remote work. One of my predictions was that the shortcomings of the largely improvisational and informal methods by which we currently organize knowledge work — what I call “the hyperactive hive mind”  — would be exaggerated by this shift, leading to even more overload:

“In such a chaotic work environment, there are profound advantages to gathering people together in one place. In person, for instance, the social cost of asking someone to take on a task is amplified; this friction gives colleagues reason to be thoughtful about the number of tasks they pass off to others…In other ways, meanwhile, offices can be helpfully frictionless. Drawn-out e-mail conversations can be cut short with just a few minutes of spontaneous hallway conversation. When we work remotely, this kind of ad-hoc coördination becomes harder to organize, and decisions start to drag.”

New research supports this prediction. A working paper recently published by a group of respected economists from the University of Chicago carefully studies a group of over 10,000 IT professionals to assess the impact of pandemic-induced remote work.

Here’s the key finding:

“Total hours worked increased by roughly 30%, including a rise of 18% in working after normal business hours. Average output did not significantly change. Therefore, productivity fell by about 20%.”

This result is important.

It’s become common to hear business leaders claim that the lesson of the pandemic is that telecommuting can be just as productive as working in an office. But we have to be careful about terminology. When they say “just as productive,” what they often really mean, as found in the Chicago study, is that the workers were still able get their work done when at home.

What this observation misses, as also found in the study, is that getting this same work done now requires more total hours. That’s a decrease in productivity. And because these efforts now necessitate more work in the morning or evenings, they’re likely creating more worker dissatisfaction and burnout.

Put bluntly, the hyperactive hive mind is not compatible with remote work. We managed to keep the proverbial ship afloat from our homes during the amplified disruption of the last year, but a 20% decrease in overall productivity is not a condition we can maintain in the long term.

This leaves us two options: either we bring everyone back to physical offices, or we finally get around to replacing the hive mind with more structured forms of collaboration. (As I point out in the New Yorker piece, software developers have an easier time moving their efforts remote because they long ago replaced the hive mind workflow — in which collaboration unfolds through frenetic, unscheduled messaging and meetings — with much more structured systems, like Scrum or Kan Ban).

I really hope we embrace the latter option, as not only will it make higher rates of remote work sustainable, it will make knowledge work better for everyone. But I fear the former option will end up seeming more attractive in the moment.

(Hat tip: Tyler Cowen)

25 thoughts on “On Productivity and Remote Work”

  1. I don’t believe the issue is necessarily remote work itself but instead it’s the systems, culture, and norm changes. Any completely new process that challenges fundamental assumptions (e.g., work is done in an office) creates disruption. The initial transitional break-in period away from in-person work and the associated paradigm shifts are what are present in the loss of productivity. As you pointed out at the end of your post, there needs to be structure and processes in place. Most remote workers are having to figure these out on the fly with no formal process to bring everyone up to speed.

    As a personal anecdote, before the pandemic, I already worked remotely (Texas) from my group in Atlanta but still in a company owned office space. Since 2020, I am now 100% work from home and discovered that productivity actually increased. I accomplish more in less hours … but … I already had good “remote work” systems in place before transitioning to home full time. The foundational skills needed to work remotely were already in place so that the ancillary benefits of being at home served to create synergies instead of roadblocks.

    Sample size of one, YMMV, etc.

    • Nice work. It’s not often you see an acknowledgement of the limitations of your case study in a blog comment.

      Interesting take too, but I think maybe a little over simplified.

      The question is, would you consider yourself more organised and studious than average, or not? My suspicion, as Cal suggests, is that the majority of knowledge workers are less likely to put the systems in place (voluntarily) to ensure they are maximally productive in their home environment.

      Your shout out to your single sample case study belies more than you think, and suggests that you are not representative… ironically 🙂

      • Valid question (yes, BTW) but it also hits upon another aspect of this issue. I’ve always advocated that there is no “one size fits all” solution to these issues. There are pros and cons to each approach that must be weighed the organization, group, and individual. Even so, systems and discipline are necessary in any work environment … but the systems and disciplines needed for remote working are different than for the office. There is a not a 1-to-1 overlap and it’s at least partly this gap in training/tools/practice that can lead to loss of productivity.

        I also question how broadly the label of “knowledge worker” is applied. Not every (or most) white collar or IT role performs “knowledge work” per se. Instead of working a hydraulic press pumping out widgets, many in technical fields work at a keyboard pumping out tickets. Different levels of skill/training required for sure but it’s the same classification/type of “work” at a fundamental level — just in a different trade as it were.

        A few other commenters have noted interruptions from children as one potential cause, but for me (already homeschooling) the ability to see and spend time with my kids more often is one of those fringe benefits of being at home. Perhaps this is just another example of being an outlier but it also serves to validate the point further that for some, remote work is a better fit that leads to increased productivity. My children are not interruptions into my widget making, but instead often serve as needed breaks that allow my brain to reset while still crunching stuff subconsciously in the background.

    • Yes! Workers with kids at home worked more total hours than those without.

      Though the study was conducted in Asia, so I don’t think they were facing the same zoom school/home school demand that many American’s face.

  2. Is it possible that the folks working from home were less productive during the pandemic has a lot to do with being interrupted all day with kids being home?

    Nonetheless, I agree that the collaboration tools need to be better.

  3. The extra hours most likely come from time not spent commuting, so not at a net loss for employees. On the plus side, that means the overdue rationalization you are calling for has the potential to massively increase productivity and finally resolve Solow’s famous paradox of IT’s non-impact on productivity.

    It took around 50 years from the introduction of electric motors to redesigning factories originally designed around centralized steam power, perhaps there is an organizational constant of slowness to adapt to change at work here. Unless it is Max Planck’s pithy observation that science advances one funeral at a time.

  4. When you work in an office, there’s a wall between your professional life and personal life. When we are suddenly sent back home for remote work, finding focus can become a challenge (with children at home, the absence of peer pressure at the office – you can take as many breaks as you want at home). That was definitely a learning curve for many.

    With all the lessons learned on how to focus alone and self-discipline during the Covid period, when we go back to physical offices, it would not surprise me if our productivity would be higher than the pre-Covid period.

  5. Did the paper take into account zero childcare for those remote workers? No daycares, no babysitters, plus remote schooling?

    Let’s stop pretending that we all just moved from the office to the home office during the pandemic – we moved from the office to homes where we had to take care of our children 24/7, to possibly abusive homes, to homes where everyday life was suddenly harder (eg. no running out to the store to get something etc).

  6. I’ve been thinking lately if the number of hours spent to work is really the right measure of productivity for everyone, given the spectrum of different tasks and the cognitive energy required for the depth we choose to go. I’ve been working in SaaS for many years and my small team is distributed across three continents. While we have good systems (github, trello, slack, teamup…) in place that keep our collective input and output organized, at a personal level, we all work differently. I recently tried time-boxing my days, with the scheduled (or intended) boxes on the left and the actual time spent on the right. The awareness I’ve gotten out of the experiment so far is quite astonishing. First, the visual represenation of the two columns tells immediately that my days don’t go as planned. Second, the only boxes that I start on time are the ones I have fixed zoom appointments – this reminds me of my time working in a corporate office years ago when my days were often guided by schedules involved other people. I felt somewhat embarrassing with my first day of time-boxing and how much off my effort estimates were. On the other hand, I realized the time spent is not a good measure of my productivity. For some of the boxed tasks, I seemed to have gone deeper than I would, had I wrapped up that task through a meeting or call or even email with others. There is apparently more to dig about social commitment. The more interesting question might be: Time is easy to measure, the quality of time’s output is not. What is more relevant to productivity?

  7. The reduced productivity figure is eye-opening, but I don’t think pandemic-era studies can be so readily applied to moving into a post-pandemic world. The last statement in the introduction gets at this: “Employees with children living at home increased hours worked more than those without children at home, and suffered a bigger decline in productivity than those without children.“
    As schools, daycares, and after school programs return to normal operations, I would expect the difference between employees with and without children to narrow if not disappear. In the paper they noted that employees with children didn’t have lower output, but they did have longer hours (presumably due to distractions and interruptions).

  8. One issue I have is that this is IT professionals. This creates a few problems. First, a lot of IT issues are already handled remotely, which isn’t always the case with other jobs. Plus, IT tends to be staffed with people who are used to computers. While that seems an odd thing to say, it is a potential issue, as not everyone is comfortable with the devices, even today.

    More significantly, though, these are IT people in a pandemic. This has created tremendous stress on IT systems. I’ve heard a lot of non-IT people talk about how wonderful working form home is, and how they hope things stay this way forever. IT people, in contrast, tend to be very concerned about the viability of this. Their main concern (and I’m not an IT person, so if I’m wrong blame me, not them) is that the transition to remote work wasn’t done systematically, but rather as a panic move. The systems aren’t designed to work the way we’re using them. IT has done wonders in nearly every company to keep people like me from noticing the issues, but those issues are there, and if we intend to make this permanent we will need to address them systematically, sometimes from the ground up.

    What this means for this study is, I frankly don’t believe the times or productivity values given. It’s very plausible that part of that 20% drop in productivity is due to workers needing to fight the systems in order to accomplish what needs to be done. It’s not the workers, in other words, it’s the tools. The fact that they’ve been able to maintain productivity shows how dedicated and skilled they are. As for hours, the concept of billable hours gets hazy at home. To give an example: I sometimes get stuck on a problem, so I wash some dishes or fold some cloths while I think about it. Staring at a computer screen doesn’t help, and I think better when I’m moving–in the office I’d pace, at home I do chores. Is that billable? How you answer questions like that can have a significant impact on how many hours you say folks are working.

    I’d like to see similar studies conducted in other fields, during non-pandemic times, before I draw any firm conclusions. Please note that I’m in favor of returning to the office (I like the commute, and I’ve always compartmentalized my life to a rather high degree), so I’m arguing against my biases here.

  9. Echoing several comments above: can the increase in hours and decrease in productivity truly be attributed mostly to the hyperactive hive mind?? I don’t know that it can: schools were also closed, and so people were struggling to work WHILE also caring for children 24/7.

    I don’t believe we can compare the pandemic work-from-home scenario with a normal work-from-home world where kids go off to school during the day.

    “This leaves us two options: either we bring everyone back to physical offices, or we finally get around to replacing the hive mind with more structured forms of collaboration.”
    There is a third option: replace the hive mind with more structured forms of collaboration AND get kids back in school once it is safe to do so. Propose a hybrid model of going back to physical offices 2-3 times a week for management days, and working from home the rest of the time for productivity days.

  10. Two issues that stand out to me regarding all of this are to do with boundaries and trust.

    With remote work the delineation between work and not work becomes very blurred. The same device, the same screen for work, shopping, communication, news, entertainment and more. This is a recipe to be in a perpetual state of semi-work, never truly productive, but never truly relaxed either. Though commutes can often be tedious and energy sapping (and expensive) they at least form a boundary between work and home.

    The second issue is trust. A lot of the always on call email culture comes, i believe, from employers not fully trusting their employees to be conscientious if not supervised. Hence the checking up and the massively distracting emails and such. Even though most people tend to work to a higher standard when actually given a little bit of trust and autonomy.

    I think pandemic driven WFH simply highlights and exacerbates traits and problems that were already there. It reveals some underlying truths which are not always pleasant.

    But what do I know

    • “A lot of the always on call email culture comes, i believe, from employers not fully trusting their employees to be conscientious if not supervised.”

      Some of it, sure, but in my experience a lot of it also comes from very shallow thinking on the part of the manages. The idea is that since they can always call us and have make corrections, they don’t need to put as much thought into planning–they can revise on the fly. For some jobs that’s fine, but for many it causes tremendous problems, especially when someone doesn’t think to check their email at 5 am before driving to a remote jobsite.

      Workers also contribute. I have found myself using my email system as a sort of external memory more often than I should. It’s fine when I’m at a computer, but if I’m on a jobsite and don’t have access to it I’m lost. And since I need to look up that email anyway I may as well send one or two, and respond to that one that just came in, and chat with someone on Slack/Teams, and suddenly it’s noon and I haven’t done a thing.

  11. Hi, Cal

    My father did remote work before there was ever such an animal (1980). He used his own computer and drove in for meetings. It generally did work pretty well and he was far more productive at home, even with kids and dogs and cats around.

    But what he didn’t do as well was do a hard separation between work and home. He had research on the side. Same computer, same desk. In some cases, he shut the work side down and went right to his personal research. It was enough that even now that he’s retired at 81, he still thinks of home as work.

    I think a lot of people don’t really know how to work at home, and technology simply makes that even easier. Writers who write full-time have been doing this successfully for years before the pandemic. It is a different mindset, and you also have to take away things that will distract you. Dean Wesley Smith, a long-term writer, has two computers. One’s for the writing and one’s for the business and searching the internet. They’re in different spaces. So when you sit down at the writing desk, it’s only for writing. I’m sure a lot of people might be having trouble because the work area is not separated in some way from the rest of the house, even if it’s just a devoted desk.

    Everyone’s talking about doing telework/remote work more often. But no one really talks about how to do it.

    • You’re definitely onto something there. I find the ability to compartmentalise essential to get work done; without some kind of barrier, I find myself stuck in a trying-to-be-productive-but-constantly-distracted hell. I’m just glad I don’t have kids.

      A study I heard about recently found a huge boost in both productivity and health when people had a dedicated workspace with a door they could close.

  12. I must agree with the premise. I found that even changes to the pre-Covid work environment had consequences to productivity. A new Chief to a programming section did not like the programmers congregating in the break room. He removed all tales and chairs, forcing everyone to work at their desks. Productivity dropped severely as that action destroyed interpersonal interactions.
    I tell teleworkers to come in to work at least one day out of the week, to renew the hive mind.

  13. Did the study consider the time taken commuting? My commute used to take me at least 3 hours per day, with a round trip of driving 120 miles. This time was largely unproductive, yet I considered this time devoted to work, since if I wasn’t working I wouldn’t be doing it, and I couldn’t productively do much else (apart from listening to audio books and podcasts).
    Then there’s the environmental and financial cost of this, plus the risk of being involved in a car accident. So it’s complicated.

  14. One of the greatest distractions for me as been the constant pings of direct messages while I am either busy or, worse, on a call. MS Teams has a “do not disturb” option, but it doesn’t prevent anyone from pinging whenever they feel like it.

    Just imagine how this would translate in the real world. Imagine you’re on a call at your desk, and you have someone tapping you on the shoulder for attention because they have something to ask you. And not just that guy, but that other guy, and that other one over there. Imagine how THAT would go down IRL. It simply wouldn’t happen. Being IM’ed when clearly marked “on a call” on Teams is exactly the same thing.

    As for the pings when on “Do not disturb”, I compare them with post-it notes. Imagine focusing on a project and having people writing down stuff for you to notice on post-it notes and leaving them on your desk. While you’re focusing on a project. Again, there’s no way this would happen IRL and yet, remotely, everyone thinks that it’s acceptable.

    So, my question: WTF, HR?

  15. Great insight. I agree many advantages come with working from home, but one of the most important ones for business owners is productivity. What does it mean to be productive? Productivity means accomplishing a lot without wasting time or energy. So we need to form a strong collaborative structure to increase productivity when working remotely

  16. Cal, I like your reference to Scrum and Kanban at the end of the your article. I am in the process of introducing Scrum to our non-technical team so that we can identify, prioritize, and make methodical progress on our group’s key business objectives. I’m hoping that this effort will result in the team understanding the importance of eliminating waste and focussing on deep work. Your book (Deep Work) and Jeff Sutherland’s book (Scrum) provide the reference material for this experiment.


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