Working remotely during the pandemic didn’t make us any more productive – digital intensity just made it seem that way
As large parts of the US workforce transitioned from conventional, office-based work models to working from home last year, businesses grappled with the question of how the shift would affect productivity.
Initial insights into productivity after the WFH transition were optimistic. In a 2020 survey of business leaders and employees conducted by The Wharton School, 82 per cent of those surveyed indicated that their teams maintained or exceeded pre-pandemic productivity levels: 39 per cent indicated that productivity remained at the same level as before the pandemic, 34 per cent reported that productivity was “somewhat higher,” and 10 per cent reported that productivity was “significantly higher.”
Similarly, a December survey by PwC found that about half of employers (52 per cent) and a third (34 per cent) of employees working remotely reported higher rates of productivity than before the pandemic began. (It’s worth noting that the positive response rate to this question grew over time from June to December.)
These studies relied on self-reported data from employees and managers who were themselves in the thick of the WFO to WFH transition. More recent research suggests that this perceived increase in productivity was likely a mirage, brought about by increasingly hectic schedules, higher volumes of email, more frequent meetings and the reality of working amid the distractions of home life.
Busier doesn’t equal more productive
A recent report from the University of Chicago compared productivity rates of 10,000+ workers prior to and after transitioning to a WFH model. The workers were employed by an IT services provider in Asia. Researchers collected data over a 17 month period, from April 2019 through August 2020, a timeframe that included the company’s transition from a WFO to WFH model that took place in March 2020.
The subjects of the study are described as “highly skilled and educated” professionals, who possess at least a bachelor’s degree in a field such as computer engineering or electronics. Subjects worked in the R&D department of their firm, performing jobs that demanded a “significant amount of cognitive work” related to the development of new software and hardware applications. Their jobs required the ability to think critically, solve complex problems and engage with a variety of stakeholders.
Rather than rely on self-reported data, the study used software to track worker activity. It was sophisticated enough to distinguish between actual work (engagement with relevant applications) versus idle time.
What the data tells us
Researchers found a 20 per cent decline in productivity when compared with WFO, as the total number of hours worked increased but workers’ total output remained constant. Put another way, workers needed more hours to complete the same amount of work. The data showed that “overall hours worked increased, including those after regular office hours.” These longer days likely played a role in shaping our perceptions of higher productivity.
The authors also suggest that a reduction in available focus time is what caused the decline in productivity. (The study defines focus time as a two-or-more-hour block of work time without any interruptions.) According to the study, employees have less focus time when working from home because they are spending more time attending meetings and writing emails. In fact, researchers found employees were sending 17 per cent more emails when working remotely when compared to WFO.
|The average increase in hours worked
|Decrease in productivity (work output vs hours worked)
|Increase in work occurring outside business hours
|Increase in the number of emails sent
Fragmented, not focused
A second study adds more detail to the relationship between remote work and available focus time. According to Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index, one major hurdle for remote workers has been the increased “digital intensity” of the workday: longer, more frequent meetings and an increased reliance on chat and email have become the post-pandemic new normal for many remote workers.
Microsoft analysed usage of their Teams platform and found that workers are spending more than twice as much time in meetings as they did pre-pandemic. They also found that meeting times were averaging 10 minutes longer, and the number of unplanned or spontaneous meetings ramped up.
Beyond time spent in meetings, Microsoft observed that Teams users were sending 45 per cent more chat messages each week, and that chats sent after work hours increased by 42 per cent. One finding is particularly stunning: commercial and education customers of the Teams platform sent 40.6 billion more emails compared to the previous year.
Additional insights from the report paint a picture of a workforce that may be on the verge of burnout. Even though the number of emails and chats has increased, the average response time has remained unchanged. In other words, demands on workers’ attention have become even more relentless. They also found that 62 per cent of meetings and calls were being scheduled ad hoc, bringing additional disruption into the equation. Microsoft concludes that overall, most workers are exhausted and struggling to keep up.
Finding a path back to productivity
Recent research from both the University of Chicago and Microsoft suggests that remote work makes it more difficult for employees to maintain the same level of productivity as when they work in a conventional office setting. The reason productivity declines in a WFH environment is that managers and teams are compensating for the lack of in-person contact by increasing the number of meetings and other forms of communication that disrupt workers’ schedules and fragment their attention.
The shift to remote and hybrid work models is a major adjustment for most companies, and we are just now starting to see the kind of data that can help us (re)calibrate our strategies for fostering collaboration and communication outside the office. It is already clear that we need tools, processes, and approaches that can help our teams defragment and reclaim focus time whenever and wherever possible.
 Building Resilience & Maintaining Innovation in a Hybrid World. Microsoft & The Wharton School. 2020. Page 8.
 It’s time to reimagine where and how work will get done. PwC’s Remote Work Survey. Jan 12, 2021.
 Work from Home & Productivity: Evidence from Personnel & Analytics Data on IT Professionals. Gibbs, Mengel, Siemroth. Becker Friedman Institute for Economics. U of Chicago. May 2021.