What Does Remote Work Mean for Productivity?

2020 has been a year of change; many were unexpected, but almost all were rather predictable. Besides the pandemic dominating news headlines and boardroom conversations, many firms were forced to adapt to trends they've likely been monitoring and were aware of but decided to hold off for as long as possible. Among those trends are digital enablement, transition from on-premises to cloud technology, automation/artificial intelligence, and remote work. This post will take a closer look at the adoption of remote work and how it impacts productivity across businesses.

While remote work (work from home, work from anywhere) is not a new concept, adoption had been very low across most businesses. In fact, prior to the pandemic, for many firms it was almost taboo. The traditional thinking among corporate leadership is that if employees are not in sight of their supervisors they are likely not doing their jobs. Even today, almost a year into the largest remote work experiment ever, some business leaders still make this argument, assuming that employee productivity dropped when people went from working in offices to working from anywhere.

To find the real impact of remote work, Aberdeen compared the year-over-year performance changes observed by firms with remote work capabilities and firms without them. We found that remote work led to three times greater annual increase in employee productivity. This is crucial as it shows that, when implemented the right way, remote work enables employees to accomplish more within the same amount of time.

One reason for this growth in productivity is that employees are now working longer hours. With work commutes transformed to trips from the bedroom to the home office (or any other remote work arrangement), employees are now spending less time on the road going to and from the office. The data shows most employees are willing to trade off their commute to working in the comfort of their preferred workspaces, which also reduces transportation costs and decreases carbon emissions.

Another reason for the growth in employee productivity is the streamlining of employee communication and collaboration using technology, such as unified communications (UC), which has been adopted 76 percent more widely by firms making use of remote work. Leveraging such technology, employees can more easily find and communicate with peers without having to walk throughout an office or travel to a different worksite.

Another source of the productivity increase is reducing unplanned disruptions in the workplace. Unplanned conversations that happen in the hallway, in the cafeteria, or by the water cooler are highly beneficial. They provide opportunities for employees to communicate and collaborate in-person, generate new ideas, and nurture a team/company culture. However, many of these unplanned conversations also revolve around non-work-related topics, like weekend sporting events or concerts,, and while those conversations bond employees to a certain degree, they don't deliver measurable productivity benefits.

Nonetheless, a common concern when it comes to remote work is whether employees are spending their time doing their jobs instead of browsing the internet, watching TV, or engaging in other non-work-related activities. Data shows savvy firms proactively monitor employee productivity to ensure their remote work program success. Specifically, they are 2.1 times more likely to use desktop analytics to monitor employee activities.

Desktop analytics allows business leaders to monitor active screen time, percent of time spent doing specific tasks, application usage, etc., so companies can ensure that employees spend their time doing their jobs when working remotely. The insights gleaned by monitoring the employee desktop also reveal opportunities for coaching and guidance. For example, if employees take a long time to complete a certain task, they can be trained on how to more effectively complete that task. That's another reason why, in terms of improving employee productivity, firms with remote work get ahead of their peers without it.

While remote work clearly helps firms improve productivity, it's not feasible for all firms. Companies using digital channels (e.g., web, social media, chat, messaging) to interact with their current and potential customers particularly benefit from remote work. Firms whose activities are limited to in-person interactions (e.g., hair and nail salons, gyms) will need to find innovative ways to incorporate digital capabilities to benefit from remote work. Aberdeen's CX Executive Agenda 2020 study indicated that 77 percent of companies use at least two digital channels to interact with customers.

Are you currently using or planning to use remote work? If so, what has been your experience in terms of changes in employee productivity? How do you monitor and manage it? What are your long-term plans for remote work once we reach the next normal and it's declared safe for employees to go back into the office?

Omer Minkara is a vice president and principal analyst for contact center and customer experience management at Aberdeen. Follow him at @omerminkara.