Remote Work Can (And Does) Boost Employee Productivity

Data proves it: Remote work boosts productivity. Here's why — and how you can empower your remote team to be more productive.

by RC Victorino March 30, 2020

Remote workers don’t sleep until noon, wear pajamas all day, and slack off because no one’s watching. Studies suggest the opposite: remote workers are more productive than employees who work in the office.

And although remote work is not new (telecommuting was an option for employees as early as the 1970s), it wasn’t until a 2012 two-year Stanford study that we saw so clearly how remote work impacts productivity and employee satisfaction.

How China’s largest travel agency increased productivity — by going remote

This groundbreaking study, involving 16,000 participants, was conducted by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom. He enlisted the help of his graduate student (James Liang, co-founder and CEO of Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency).

Liang was interested in developing a work-from-home policy as a way to reduce:

  1. Overhead (the rising cost of Shanghai office space was becoming crippling)
  2. Attrition (employees could not afford to live in the city, resulting in long commutes that impacted their happiness and work/life balance)

Before establishing a work-from-home policy, Liang wanted evidence that remote work would not destroy productivity — and his business.

Enter Bloom. He conducted a study where every six months over two years, he split 500 employees into two groups: 250 employees continued to work in the office, 250 worked from home.

He anticipated the results to be a wash — remote work would not have a profound impact (good or bad) on productivity.

What the study revealed instead took Bloom by surprise.

Remote workers were far more productive.

“We found massive, massive improvement performances,” Bloom recalls in a 2017 TEDx talk. “A 13% improvement in performance from people working at home. That’s almost one day a week.”

Bloom cited two reasons for this boost in productivity.

1. Remote employees worked their full shift

Office employees were more likely to arrive late and leave earlier than remote workers for a number of reasons (they were stuck in traffic; their car broke down; they had to go home to let the cable guy in, etc.).

Bloom’s study revealed that remote workers were not only more likely to work a full shift, but they also took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days, and took less time off.

In other words, they worked more. But working more does not necessarily mean you’re more productive. Working more hours can provide the opportunity to be more productive. This leads us to Bloom’s second finding.

2. Offices are far more distracting than we want to admit

Remote workers in the study reported being able to concentrate more while at home, compared to when they worked at headquarters.

“You hear stories, you know, the person at the desk next door to me, her boyfriend’s just left her, she’s in tears. There’s a cake in the breakout room, Bob’s leaving, come join,” Bloom says. “Whatever it is, the office is actually super distracting.”

Remote workers were able to spend more time working in an environment more conducive to deep work.

The result is an increase in productivity.

But what’s missing here is the human element. Yes, working more hours in a quieter environment can boost productivity in the short term. But employees are not automatons. To remain productive for the long-term, employees need to like what they do at work.

What Bloom discovered was remote workers did enjoy their work more than their HQ colleagues — despite working more hours. Employee attrition decreased by 50% for the remote workers in the study.

Why are remote workers generally happier at work? Autonomy. Remote workers have a greater sense of freedom and control, which makes them happier.

Happier workers are more likely to sustain higher levels of productivity.

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The power of autonomy and remote work productivity

In their 2019 State of Remote Work report, OWL Labs surveyed 1,202 full-time workers (62% of who work remotely at least in part). More than 80% of respondents (both remote and on-site workers) stated that working remotely would make them:

  1. Feel more trusted at work
  2. Feel less stressed
  3. Better able to manage work-life conflict

Each of these represents a sense of autonomy. More trust at work equates to a sense of ownership over how you approach each workday. Being able to manage work-life conflict means having control over how you balance your schedule.

This sense of autonomy that remote workers feel is also evident in the State of Remote Work-2020 report published by Buffer and AngelList. In this report, 3,500 remote workers were asked what they viewed as the most significant benefit of working remotely:

Each of the responses centers around autonomy. Autonomy over your schedule. Autonomy over your workplace setting. Autonomy over how you balance life with work.

With this autonomy comes a sense of fulfillment. Fulfillment at work can lead to increased productivity. Employees are inspired to reach their potential because their work experience enriches them in more ways than just monetarily.

But remote workers don’t automatically feel empowered — or fulfilled. Remote work can be isolating, which in turn can negatively impact productivity and morale.

For context, despite being allowed to work remotely full-time following the Stanford study, more than half of Ctrip workers chose to come into the office at least part of the time.

They cited feelings of isolation as their reason.

These Ctrip employees were fortunate that they had the option to come into the office. Not all remote employees have that option. Some employees live hundreds or thousands of miles away from HQ. Basecamp overcomes this obstacle by flying their employees to their Chicago HQ each year. Other remote-friendly companies, like Zapier and Webflow, arrange annual retreats to get their employees together in one space.

But that’s not a practical solution for everyone. You may not have the budget for annual gatherings or retreats, your company may be 100% remote, or the logistics of scheduling such a retreat may be too much of a burden.

That’s why companies must implement a remote work policy that empowers their remote employees to feel connected professionally and socially with their colleagues.

Helping your remote team feel connected

Although offices are distracting, they do make it easy for colleagues to interact and touch base (both professionally and casually).

By not being in an office, remote employees may:

  1. Be unintentionally excluded from meaningful conversations and decisions held offline
  2. Feel socially disconnected from their teammates

The tools your team uses can help you overcome both of these challenges.

Keeping your remote employees informed

Project management apps like GitHub, Jira, and Trello democratize critical knowledge. They serve as a centralized place to record tasks, conversations, and upcoming projects. Project management tools make it easy for everyone on your team to stay informed.

When used appropriately, chat apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams make real-time communication possible — regardless of where your colleagues live. But beware, tools like Slack can make remote workers feel even more isolated. Creating a Slack etiquette guide can help ensure your team uses Slack effectively.

Video conferencing apps (Zoom, Hangouts), in particular, can be incredibly powerful tools that combat feelings of isolation. Plus, they can add the necessary context that virtual communication needs.

According to anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, as much as 70% of human communication is non-verbal. The crossing of arms, the nod of a head — these cues inform us of how our colleagues think or feel at a given moment. Video conferencing tools make it possible for remote employees to pick up on these social cues as if they’re in the same room as their teammates.

Keeping your remote employees socially connected

Tools like Slack and Zoom are great for getting work done. But they can also be used to help your remote teammates connect socially. You can use Zoom for virtual happy hours. Or, you can do what we do here at Slab. The first 15-20 minutes of our weekly planning meetings (held on Zoom) are dedicated to non-work topics. This is a voluntary part of our weekly meetings where teammates can catch up on each other’s lives.

You can also create dedicated Slack channels for non-work topics. Encourage your team to create their own channels. For example, if Lauren is obsessed with Star Trek, she could create a channel where she and other Trekkies at work can socialize.

Whatever polices you choose to implement, what’s important is making remote employees feel like they’re more than worker bees. It’s far too easy to only reach out to a remote employee when you want or need something related to work.

Be intentional with how you and your team interact with remote workers.

Remote workers can be more productive — if set up for success

Since the 2012 Stanford study, remote work has steadily been on the rise, and that trend will continue. Upwork surveyed more than 1,000 hiring decision-makers for its 2019 study on the future workforce. 73% of all teams surveyed intend to have remote workers within the next decade.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that decision to go remote for many teams, this shift seems all but inevitable for a majority of workplaces.

As you prepare your team to work remotely, refer back to the key takeaways from Bloom’s study:

  • Remote workers are often more productive than in-office workers
  • When possible, give your remote team the option to come to HQ periodically, so they feel less isolated
  • Remote work does come with its own challenges — challenges you can overcome by creating a culture of open and transparent communication
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