A year ago, many employers were wondering how on earth productivity could be sustained if employees worked from home. Today, with the end of lockdown in sight, many are wondering how productivity could be maintained when they return to the office.
It didn’t take long for the tide to turn. Some firms were reporting a 47% increase in worker productivity by mid-May, just two months after the first lockdown restrictions were introduced, shattering the common assumption that remote workers are less productive than those in the traditional office.
Even those most suspicious of the growing army of pyjama-clad workers could not deny the positive shift illustrated by a series of productivity stats published during the course of last year. In December, wrapping up months of remote work, The Economist published research by Harvard doctoral students showing that worker productivity had risen consistently during 2020.
In one fresh example from yesterday, HSBC executives have decided to reduce office space by nearly 40% in a bid to cut costs and capitalise on a new part-office-part-homeworking model, after seeing the success of remote working.
There is a ‘but’, of course. Despite the good news, a growing number of employees are reporting unhealthy shifts in their work-life balance. A whole vernacular has made it into our everyday language to reflect the new and often strange reality of WFH, such as feeling “overzoomed’ (stressed by too many calls) or the “exhaustion epidemic”.
Looking at both sides of the argument, one thing stands out: short-term increased productivity does not necessarily equal long-term success, particularly if there’s a health and wellbeing crisis looming for frazzled remote workers. Perhaps we need to rethink the concept of productivity itself.
Virginia Woolf wrote that one needs a room of their own to produce something of real value. Aristotle told us that humans are social animals. I wonder if the key to future productivity lies somewhere in between.