We Haven’t Proved Anything About Remote Work in the Last Two Years

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Daniella Ingrao, Marketing Manager11 min read

People say they’ve become more productive working from home over the past two years. But is that really true?

It isn’t, according to Linda Duxbury, a leading Canadian researcher, writer and speaker on work-life balance, mental health and employee well-being.

Productivity is equal to units produced per amount of time. Yet the research shows 70% of the workforce has been working evenings and weekends, she said. So, while many employers have reported seeing the same or more work output from their teams sent home to work through the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality may be people on those teams have been putting in more hours to achieve it.

Duxbury has contributed her knowledge and expertise to numerous national studies on work-life balance topics and their impact on business. She’s a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa and holds a Ph.D. in Management Sciences from the University of Waterloo. And most recently, Duxbury has turned her attention to examining the effects of the pandemic on employees and companies with regard to mental health, wellbeing and the future of work.

“We've got survey data on over 33,000 Canadians at different stages of the pandemic”, she said. “We've been interviewing the same people since March 2020, and the most important thing you can understand is the last two and a half years are not proof of concept of anything.”

Remote work from home before the pandemic

Remote work existed well before the pandemic, of course. A Global State of Work report from 2018 found 68% of global workers worked from home at least once a month and 18% worked remotely full time.

Furthermore, research from Gartner in 2018 indicated almost two thirds of organizations supporting remote work at that time documented higher levels of productivity. And 82% of remote workers self-reported lower levels of stress.

Basecamp as a company has been almost completely virtual since it was founded in 1999. And although the business recently navigated some culture controversy , it has steadily grown to a valuation of more than $100 billion in its two decades.

In their 2013 book, Remote: Office Not Required, Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanssonwent went so far as to say meaningful work doesn’t happen at the office—or at least not during typical office hours:

“If you ask people where they go when they really need to get work done, very few will respond "the office." If they do say the office, they'll include a qualifier such as "super-early in the morning before anyone gets in," or "I stay late at night after everyone's left," or "I sneak in on the weekend."

What they're trying to tell you is that they can't get work done at work.”

So when the pandemic forced a good portion of the workforce home and into remote work, certainly work productivity and personal wellness benefits would come along with it. Certainly our increased remote experience would show that remote work is indisputably more effective.

“Employees definitely think, ‘well I did it for the last two years and I've shown you I can’,” said Duxbury.

But she insists we haven’t really shown anything—not yet, anyways.

“I'm trying to get everybody to think a little bit more broadly…let's stop just thinking from our frame and think about the bigger picture.”

We’re more remote, but it sure hasn’t been ideal

At the start of the pandemic, we went from most people working in the office and a few people working from home to 40% of the workforce working from home. And through this period of transition to today, there has been a lot of uncertainty—especially from business leaders.

Linda Duxbury, Professor at Carleton University

“How do I know they're working? How do we measure productivity? We didn't answer any of those questions,” said Duxbury. “We dumped people home.”

And more than that, we dumped people into what were far from ideal work-from-home conditions.

  • People had added stress surrounding their health and that of their loved ones.
  • Some were struggling without the proper remote work tools and technology infrastructure.
  • And many working parents and caregivers had to manage it all without any childcare or assistance.

“If you look at the best policies on remote work, they say you must have—not it would be nice if—you must have childcare in place,” said Duxbury. “A lot of organizations and bosses went, ‘we understand and we support you…but we still need it done’. So a lot of people's balance went to hell.”

According to recent data from Microsoft, remote work has also introduced the rise of a third peak of productivity during the workday. Knowledge workers are logging back on and putting in more hours between 6pm to 8pm—in addition to traditional productivity peaks before and after lunch.

While some people with added childcare responsibilities during the day have been using the time to make up for lost work time, others want some extra time to focus away from all the digital noise—the pings and notifications that flood in during the standard digital workday.

It comes down to the mental health findings, said Duxbury.

“We've got lots of data on burnout from work, burnout from family, stress, insomnia, and prescription drug use. People are coming out of this pandemic unwell.”

What’s clear from all of this is pandemic remote work is not equal to regular remote work. And the impacts of pandemic remote work hit all the way from the top down in organizations, creating a management issue to contend with as well.

Leading remote work during a pandemic

When Duxbury looked at her data, she said a lot of really good managers have come out of this pandemic in horrible shape.

“They buffer the crap from above to the people below. They pick up extra work, et cetera. But they don't know how to bring their teams together. They don't know how to measure productivity.”

When work went remote, the switch was almost immediate and very few companies considered how the shift would impact their management styles. But the reality is, remote management requires different skills and different tools than face-to-face.

Managers have been expected to lead their teams through it all, but without proper support and guidance in most cases.

A lot of the organizations Duxbury is working with ask her to tell their managers how to engage and help their people, which is frustrating for her.

“I say, ‘no, I'm going tell you executives, you have to support your managers. You've got to give them the tools. You've got to give them time’. It's a very complicated situation.”

As for the rest of employees, they’ve basically been left to their own devices when it comes to figuring out how to manage their work-from-home workdays and balance it all with homelife. It’s a daily juggling act that throws messages, notifications, Zoom calls and independent work all together with domestic life and sometimes care-taker responsibilities.

For some, trying to separate these things has been no simple task. This has led to some fundamental changes in how people operate.

Segmenters vs integrators

There are two types of people, Duxbury pointed out: segmenters and integrators. And each has a preferred style of managing the boundaries between their work and their life.

Segmenters have a pretty strict boundary.

“They take their cues from time and location and they keep their lives in balance by managing boundaries very strictly—it's work or it's life.”

With integrators, the boundaries completely blur.

“Integrators are more likely to be found at the top of the organization because they tend to work at all hours. And organizations tend to reward that,” she said.

“But during the pandemic, one of the coolest things is we started with about 60% segmenters and 40% integrators. Now that people have been at home, a whole bunch of people switched styles.”

Through the pandemic, people struggled to achieve balance while working remotely, so they changed their approach to work and life, she said.

“I was shocked. I thought more people would become integrators. It's not what's happening at all.”

So if remote work has had such a tumultuous impact on so many people’s lives, wouldn’t it just be easier if people went back to the office full time?

Most remote and hybrid workers have said, ‘no’.

Why do we want to continue to work from home?

According to a new study by Pew Research Center, 78% of people currently working from home all or most of the time want to keep doing this moving forward.

  • Gas prices have gone up
  • People don’t want to commute
  • They don’t need to dress up when they work from home
  • They’re still worried about getting sick

These are just a handful of reasons. And despite some of the challenges that have been experienced and deeply felt since the onset of the pandemic, people are happier working remotely, according to a study by Tracking Happiness.

Based on the data from 12,455 respondents, “average employee happiness increases by 3% for every added remote workday”. And not only that, people’s work happiness has a huge impact on their life happiness.

“The correlation between happiness at work and happiness in life is significant, with a coefficient of determination (or R2) of 0.27. In other words, 27% of someone’s life happiness can be explained by someone’s happiness at work,” according to the study results.

As the world continues to emerge from the pandemic and remote work-from-home conditions improve for many, we need to find a way to harness this happiness and preferred work model. We need to go about building an approach to remote work flexibility that will truly lead to better work productivity and mental wellbeing over the long-term.

Finding a new remote work normal

Nearly three quarters of U.S. businesses are either using or planning to implement a hybrid work model. But is it the best of both worlds?

That remains to be seen.

“There are certain things that can be done extremely well from home, and they should continue to be done from home,” said Duxbury.

But other things, such as team building, brainstorming, relationship building and onboarding new people—anything that involves really rich communication media—are often best done in person, she said.

But figuring out how remote work flexibility can fit into the future of work is a lot more complicated than people think. In fact, despite what many businesses claim, we haven’t even really gotten to hybrid yet, said Duxbury. We're still in the very early stages of trying to figure it all out.

“When we're talking about flat hybrid, I get really tired about an over-focus on days,” she said. “It's a lot more than one day here, three or four days there. People are over-obsessed with where work is done and under focused on when it will be done. And both of those are key parts of the equation moving forward.”

  • People who want structure and who want to work in a central office want to know when they can get a hold of their team members, she said.
  • But people who are at home are there because they want to do the work when it's convenient to them.
“There's going to have to be a lot of compromise.”

And according to Duxbury, there isn’t one example or test case we’ll be able to follow going forward either. Why? Because hybrid work can be implemented in a myriad of different ways.

We need to start thinking about tasks rather than jobs, she said. Jobs are made up of all kinds of tasks. Some of them can be done remotely, and perhaps some of them can’t.

Duxbury said she’s all for work flexibility and being able to work where and when it works best for people. Afterall, this creates a lot more potential for everyone to structure their work lives around their personal lives, instead of the other way around.

But the reality is, it really depends on how dependent your work is on your coworkers and your clients. The more you’re needed in order for others to do their jobs and the more necessary it is to have collaboration time, the more complicated hybrid and remote teamwork can become, she said.

Work from anywhere won't be for everyone

For the 40% of the population working from home, the months and years ahead will tell us a lot more about the future of work and what that's going to look like.

How will people begin to balance their work from home jobs:

  • when they don’t have to contend with a pandemic and all the extra stresses and responsibilities that come along with it;
  • when we start to figure out the best ways to collaborate with distributed teams; and
  • when the technology we have to support remote work flexibility starts getting better and better?
Remote work before the pandemic showed great potential. But people need the right conditions and the right support to succeed in this style of work. That much is clear.

Still, remote work will never be right for everyone, said Duxbury. Even when people do have an ideal work-from-home job situation, this model won’t be a good fit universally.

“Our data would suggest that probably one in five people shouldn't be working from home. It's not good for them. They react very badly to pressures. They're not good at time management. They are extroverts and need to socialize and connect. And there are a lot of people who aren’t doing the jobs that are best done remotely.”

It’s also important to keep in mind the privilege surrounding this discussion to begin with, she said. Over 60% of the North American population doesn’t even have the opportunity to work remotely. The discussion is still leaving them out entirely.

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