Working from home (WFH). It’s now a well-known, accepted acronym in UK-wide organisations. We know what it is, and what it means. But does it impact productivity at work?

These three letters, with their dramatic impact on our personal and professional lives, have become part of the everyday fabric, and something we’ve come to accept. Working from the comfort of your sofa, your kitchen table, bedroom, or – if you’re lucky – your home office, is the new normal.

It’s also become one of the biggest differences in our experiences in work over the last 18 months: splitting us into those who can, and those who can’t.

Working from home: A trend, then compulsory

On March 23rd lockdown crashed into our world.

Enforced by a stern-looking Premier, it wasn’t so much a choice, more of a commandment. And, with several more months to go before the development of a vaccine, we made the best of something that no one voted for.

Overnight, IT departments and telecoms companies throughout the land enabled remote working for office-based employees. Yet, this wasn’t exactly a new inclination. Increasing globalisation, faster and widespread take-up of super-rapid broadband, and a demand for more flexible working had already begun long before the spread of the pandemic.

A Question of Productivity

However, for many organisations, working from home was a sudden, extremely hasty development. An abrupt change of pace. And, everything became all about productivity.

On the one hand, organisations started to lose team cohesion, perhaps even their company culture – at least anecdotally. (Refer to my workplace community blog for an examination of this issue.) On the other hand, many employees appeared to have thrived, not least those with more introverted tendencies. Without the drudge of a daily commute, there was more time to “get things done”. They were indeed more productive.

In fact, many working-from-homers have steadfastly claimed that this has been the case all along.

But here’s the issue:

What does productivity mean? Moreover, as an organisational leader, what does it mean to you? Also, where exactly can a team member be more productive? The office, or working from home?

Maybe it’s more complex than it seems.

Firstly, this gentleman has a few things to say about it all and none of it is positive:

Tim Clark (CEO of Apple), Jamie Dimon (CEO of JP Morgan) and others tend to agree with him.

However, Jack Dorsey (Twitter) Chuck Rogers (Cisco) and what looks like an equal proportion of business executives – take a different view. For the latter, home-based working is the way forward.

Productivity: A Definition

The OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) refers to productivity as a ratio between the output volume and the volume of inputs. Wikipedia talks of productivity thus: the production of goods or services expressed by some measure. But, there’s no actual or precise sense of what “some measure” actually means.

Part of my role in working with leaders is to help them decide what this important yardstick word means, not least when employees aren’t under a watchful eye.

Hours of Work. For some (or even many), back-to-back Teams or Zoom calls equal productivity. Having a full schedule with not a moment to spare is output and efficiency to the max. Or is it? In my view, the human brain ceases to function efficiently at a certain point, plus one’s Things to Do list post-meetings is surely stacking up.

Moreover, productivity can often be related to hours or work per se, not just through endless video conferencing. You work 12 hours a day, every day, ergo sky-high yields and throughput. Or not, given the inevitable levels of exhaustion and burn out thresholds. In reality, the super-extended WFH working day is a form of presenteeism.

Sales Revenue. A relatively straightforward way to define productivity for those in business development roles, perhaps.

Key Performance Indicators. Meeting objectives and targets. Seems straightforward, but this could depend on what your role is; what you do, and how you do it.

Consider also:

  • Thinking time and innovation. The well-thought-out solution to a problem likely to increase efficiencies or profitability reached through activity other than actually “working”. Does it count?
  • Employee retention and team unity. Plus, how to measure this, and the value it brings.

It is obvious, then, that productivity is a moveable feast.

Conceivably, we should be focusing on adding value above all. In a digital world, where standard tasks can be automated, normal appraisal metrics are becoming outmoded.

WFH vs. The Office

Not everyone works from home well. What do I mean here? Simply that individual domestic circumstances may not support a fruitful working day. Homeschooling, a lack of a dedicated workspace, a disruptive or noisy background, even a non-supportive working partner all play a key role in hampering not only productivity but motivation and job satisfaction.

Trust appears not to be an issue for most organisations, yet for those needing to be self-motivated, a 20-minute break can turn into 2 hours if distractions turn into major household projects.

With remote working, collaboration and communication are harder. Moreover, non-verbal communication, vital to so much of how we interact with others, is mostly absent.

Energy Levels

As a leader, encouraging your team members to recognise their energy levels enables them to exercise a degree of self-care – if at all possible. Some are more creative and dynamic from early in the morning, others later in the day. The all-important body clock should not be ignored.

In my opinion, managing energy rather than time could deliver effective results throughout the organisation.

So, which IS more productive: office-based working, or WFH? The answer is, it depends on the individual, the organisation and ultimately – on you as a leader. And perhaps, even trying to measure productivity at work in this way leads us on a path to nowhere.

The long-term effects of the social issues caused by the pandemic are yet to be analysed definitively. So, watch this space.

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