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Sonata Notes: Is Remote Team Productivity Sustainable?

While multiple studies confirmed a 5-8% jump in productivity since the great shift to remote work, leaders are divided on whether this is a temporary anomaly or the dawn of a new era. 

There are a few asterisks to consider with the pandemic productivity figures:

  • On one hand, individual worker productivity jumped because of mass layoffs.  Organizations running with a skeleton crew tend to have less slacking off, generally.  Also, many of the job cuts were in low-productivity service industries, further skewing the numbers.

  • That said, productivity numbers for virtual teams from before the pandemic were higher, with virtual teams outperforming on-site teams by 13%. This suggests that once all of the teams who were thrust into remote work by the pandemic get more experience, their productivity may rise.

Either way, no one is doubting that productivity has risen.  The only questions are by how much, and how long it will last.

Some reasons for remote worker productivity are obvious.  Without a commute, remote workers are able to start earlier and stay on later.  55% of remote workers in an Owl Labs say they log more hours than they did in an office (the equivalent of 16.8 additional work days per year, on average).  

That said, virtual workers often find personal and work time blurring together, whether it’s getting up to finish up a report at 3 a.m, or responding to a teammate’s question during their daughter’s violin recital. 

Pre-pandemic research suggests that remote workers go through a “honeymoon” period where productivity spikes for a few months as workers revel in their newfound flexibility.  But once the honeymoon is over, productivity tends to follow one of two trajectories:

  • In well-managed remote/hybrid teams, productivity gains are sustained and even improve as team members grow more comfortable interacting virtually with distant colleagues and refine their online collaboration and communication processes. A study by Aon and BCG from before the pandemic found that the top 20% of virtual teams outperformed the top 20% of in-office teams by as much as 43%.

  • In poorly managed virtual teams, productivity declines as workers lose enthusiasm, until it matches the same level as on-site workers after a year or two.    

So, how can organizations maintain their in-office productivity when transitioning to and/or maintaining a virtual environment long term? 

  • Set reasonable expectations for availability and work/life balance. Asking a virtual worker to log in while on-site workers would be commuting is one thing.  Expecting them to respond to messages at 10:30 p.m. is another.  

    That’s not to say virtual teams shouldn’t take advantage of the fact that most people glance at their messages throughout the evening.  But flexibility should be a two-way street.  If people are logging in outside customary work hours when there’s a deadline to meet, that can be a good thing.  But if that’s the case, it should be acceptable to log out for a bit during the day, after the deadline crunch is past. 

  • Commit to a clear, consistent remote work policy.  While surveys indicate that worker productivity is up, they also indicate that anxiety is up as well.  While some of this is pandemic-related and will (hopefully) pass, many organizations add to workers’ stress by constantly changing their remote policies.  Not knowing what the expectations will be in 6 months or a year makes it difficult for team members to plan their lives around work, leading to a shorter “honeymoon” period and increased burnout. 

  • Make sure managers are committed.  It’s said that employees don’t quit their jobs, they quit their managers.  And this is doubly true of remote/hybrid team managers.  40% of managers surveyed by Australia’s Curtin University were uncomfortable managing remote teams, and in many cases this led to either distrust, over-monitoring, and micromanagement, or lack of communication and isolation.  

    Providing managers with training on remote best practices can ease managers’ anxieties before they affect the morale of their team. 

  • Make deliberate efforts to provide career paths and advancement opportunities for remote workers.  The other long-term driver of remote worker burnout is getting passed up for promotions and other career development opportunities.  Stanford and MIT studies have shown that while virtual workers are 13% more effective, they are 50% less likely to get a promotion, pay raise or bonus. 

  • Expect managers to have (or develop) “virtual competence.”  Organizations have always expected managers to be effective communicators and strong professional role models for their team.  In the new, virtual/hybrid world, that expectation needs to be expanded to include effective online communication and modeling good remote work habits.  If the boss always comes across as uncomfortable in Zoom meetings or constantly complains about their slow internet connection, that is not going to inspire trust and confidence among virtual team members.

In the end, while it’s fair to ask whether virtual work is sustainable, it’s just as fair to ask if 100% in-person models are sustainable.  A McKinsey survey found a quarter of employees would consider switching employers if their organization asked them to work fully on-site.  In today’s talent market, organizations would be better advised to making their virtual workplace more sustainable than trying to fight the tide. 

If your organization is interested in strategic advice and training on remote/hybrid work, contact Sonata Learning for a consultation.

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Emil Heidkamp is the founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Learning.  He works with NGOs, corporations and government agencies to implement training and knowledge management initiatives impacting thousands of learners in over 50 countries.