Remote Work Productivity: Does It Need To Be Fixed?

March 15, 2024

The narrative surrounding the impact of remote work productivity has taken unexpected twists and turns. Initially, the prevailing wisdom during the early days of the pandemic was that remote work was a boon for productivity. Yet, as the pandemic’s grip waned and remote work persisted, reports began to suggest a dip in productivity among remote employees compared to their in-office counterparts. The question on everyone’s mind: did the allure of working from home lose its luster? Did the external pressures that had driven the mass migration to remote work diminish with the waning threat of COVID-19? Amid this ongoing transformation, organizations find themselves at a crossroads, wrestling with the critical decision of bringing their employees back to the office or embracing flexible work arrangements.

Perhaps most intriguingly, it’s becoming evident that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this complex dilemma. Some companies, including the likes of Zoom, a virtual communication juggernaut, are calling employees back to the office, while others are affording their workforce the freedom to choose their preferred work mode. It’s a multifaceted conundrum, and its solution requires a deep understanding of various factors at play.

Research on Remote Work Productivity: Are Remote Workers More Effective?

To shed light on this perplexing issue, we turn to research conducted in 2022 and carried into 2023. This research involved a comprehensive examination of leaders operating in both remote and in-office settings, comprising 1,355 leaders in office environments and 999 leaders working remotely. These leaders underwent thorough 360-degree assessments and were evaluated by managers, peers, direct reports, and other colleagues. The findings that emerged challenge conventional wisdom in two compelling ways:

·       Firstly, there were no discernible differences in the overall leadership effectiveness between leaders operating remotely and those in traditional office settings.

·       Secondly, the engagement levels of direct reports remained consistent, regardless of whether their leader was remote or on-site.

As the calendar pages turned to 2023, these intriguing revelations remained unchanged, showing no significant shifts year over year. However, what truly sets these findings apart are two distinct mindset distinctions that emerged from the data:

1.     Employees working in the office exhibited higher confidence in their organization’s ability to achieve strategic goals.

2.     Conversely, those working remotely displayed higher scores in discretionary effort, reflecting their willingness to go the extra mile in their roles.

These two differences raise interesting questions. Is there a cause and effect to remote work productivity or the office? Or is the primary driving force a “selection” phenomenon? Are people who are convinced that the firm will achieve its strategic goals more motivated to make an effort to come into the office? Are people who work from home more prone to be self-starters who don’t need others around them to reinforce work discipline?

Differences in Leadership Competencies: People vs. Tasks

When we examined individual competencies for each of the two groups, we discovered two significant differences. These reinforce a long-standing dichotomy used to describe leadership behavior: People focus vs. Task focus.

In the in-office context, we observed that leaders were consistently rated higher in their proficiency for valuing diversity and inclusion, as well as for their adeptness at cultivating positive relationships with their colleagues. These competencies thrive on regular face-to-face interactions that an office environment naturally affords.

This inclination towards people-focused leadership appears to be more closely associated with an in-office work setting, where interpersonal connections are cultivated more readily.

Conversely, remote leaders received more favorable assessments in six key competencies, underlining a proclivity towards task-oriented leadership. These competencies include strategic perspective, customer focus, driving for results, taking risks, making decisions, and establishing stretch goals.

It’s plausible that the remote work dynamic fosters a more directive approach among leaders, necessitated by the challenges of coordinating strategy, driving results, and orchestrating change efforts.

However, it’s worth noting that the remote work landscape is not without its unique challenges. The absence of regular face-to-face interaction can result in days passing by with limited meaningful engagement among team members, potentially affecting the quality of interpersonal relationships.

As organizations navigate this evolving terrain, they must consider how to strike a balance between these two distinct leadership profiles and leverage the strengths of each in their pursuit of continued success.

Employee Engagement for Remote Leaders

As we cast our gaze back to the early days of the pandemic, a curious trend emerged. Employee engagement appeared to soar as a significant portion of the workforce transitioned to remote work. It was a revelation that initially sparked optimism about the possibilities of a new era in work arrangements. However, as time has passed and the dust settled, our data collected since 2021 paints a more nuanced picture.

Today, we find that there are only minor differences in the levels of engagement between employees operating in the familiar confines of an office and those navigating the remote landscape. Yet, amidst this equilibrium, one compelling variable emerges as the linchpin of engagement: the overall effectiveness of the leader.

Zenger Folkman Remote vs. In Office Engagement Study

Zenger Folkman’s research illustrates this nexus between leadership effectiveness and engagement with remarkable clarity. As the graph below demonstrates, as leader effectiveness ascends, so does engagement. This correlation underscores leaders’ profound influence over their teams’ satisfaction and commitment, a pivotal insight that cannot be overstated.

Delving deeper into our findings, we observe a subtle yet noteworthy divergence in engagement when comparing employees in offices with their remote counterparts. Within the top quartile of leaders in terms of overall effectiveness, we uncover a statistically significant gap in engagement: 69.6 for those in offices versus 65.3 for remote workers. This disparity underscores the undeniable impact of physical presence, face-to-face interactions, and shared spaces. In-person interactions tend to foster more positive experiences, reaffirming the value of personal connections in the workplace.

Conclusion for Remote Work Productivity

This discovery lends considerable support to a hybrid working model whenever feasible. While many employees have embraced the comforts of remote work, liberated from commutes and office politics, the prospect of having a portion of the workforce regularly present in the office each week offers the best of both worlds.

Yet, the debate persists, with some staunchly advocating for a remote-only future, citing increased productivity, and others relish the return to the office, invigorated by the renewed spirit of collaboration. In this cacophony of opinions, the hybrid work environment emerges as an astute solution, bridging the gap between divergent preferences and harnessing the power of choice.

– Joe Folkman

This article first appeared in Joe FOlkman’s LinkedIn Newsletter, Leadership Psychometrics. Sign up for his monthly issues. 

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