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When the COVID-19 pandemic prohibited meeting in person, many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) employers adopted work-from-home measures out of necessity. Firms adapted to the change through various virtual meeting programs like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and more, relying on technology to monitor workers and organize projects. While concerns about the virus remain with the spread of the Delta variant, some companies are easing back into in-person work after the widespread availability of vaccines. Many employees, however, are reluctant to head back into the office, citing the greater convenience and flexibility of remote work. Although some organizations are happily adopting work-from-home on a more permanent basis to cut costs, others express concerns about perceived declines in productivity. But what does the data say? Can employees maintain—or even exceed—their standard performance expectations in an unsupervised environment, from the comfort of a home office? Or does work-from-home limit employees’ abilities to collaborate, innovate, and maximize efficiency? In the post-COVID brave new world, many companies must determine their path forward. While the data is far from unanimous, studies suggest that work-from-home productivity is far from simple. The best solution may vary between sectors, job types, and individuals.

Remote Work: Some Surprising Advantages

While some studies indicate potential pitfalls, companies need to be aware of remote work potential advantages. Even before delving into the question of productivity, firms should consider potential cost-savings enabled by remote work, such as the reduction in commercial office space. Additionally, work-from-home can have positive impacts on employee performance. Consider a 2013 Harvard Business Review study, which indicated that workers spend most of their time doing administrative work or in meetings, they found tiresome and unproductive.1 When the pandemic hit, researchers had the chance to evaluate similar employees on how going remote impacted workflow. Their findings indicate that these workers spent less time in meetings and more time engaging customers, took more control over their schedule, and rated their work as more meaningful.1

Likewise, a Stanford study reports that worker productivity increased 13 percent, improving performance due to a more comfortable work environment and decreased sick days. Not only were workers producing more, but attrition rates were cut in half.2 Studies by the Society for Human Resource Management produced similar findings. Workers were more willing to put in time while sick or on vacation, and 77 percent indicated increased productivity, while 30 percent reporting doing more in less time.3 Research by Global Workplace Analytics further echoes potential benefits for employers. A whopping 95 percent of companies reported that remote work strongly impacted employee retention, with 46 percent indicating reduced attrition.3

The Downsides of Work-from-Home

On the other hand, some research paints a less-than-rosy picture of remote work productivity. A Microsoft study analyzing over 60,000 information workers indicated several vital issues, including a siloed collaboration network and less cross-departmental communication. Indeed, Microsoft revealed that collaboration dropped by around a fourth.6 Without face-to-face meetings, asynchronous communication like email, SMS, and instant messaging filled the gaps, with even remotely mediated synchronous communication (such as phone calls and online meetings) decreasing.

Research focusing on IT professionals reported similar findings, indicating that even when workers spent more time “on the job,” their output took a hit. Even though working hours increased 18 percent, productivity declined by 8-19 percent.7 What caused the issues? Data suggests that distractions like children at home played a role, as employees with children lost more productivity than those without them. As indicated by the Microsoft study, coordination and communication issues also likely played a role as employees spent more time coordinating meetings. 

Looking Forward: Improving Remote Work and the Hybrid Model

One proposed solution to the work-from-home question is adopting a hybrid model where some activities take place in person, but other work is completed from home. As several studies show, communication and coordination difficulties provide a significant obstacle for remote work. However, by combining remote work and the traditional workplace, companies can find the best balance for their workers. Indeed, surveys show that 73 percent of respondents would prefer a model where their place of work would adapt to the nature of the task at hand.8

This approach would give employees the convenience of work from home, combined with opportunities to collaborate in person. Research shows that teams produce the best creative work in a “flow state,” which is difficult to achieve over video conferences like Zoom.9 While some workers (especially those in non-collaborative jobs) may work best entirely from home, most employees in collaborative fields benefit from in-person meetings.

Designing the Future of Post-COVID Work

STEM encompasses a broad range of fields, including both collaborative and solitary workers. Some employees may be most productive entirely out-of-office for positions that do not require extensive collaboration and coordination. On the other hand, for those who rely on teams, asynchronous, digitally mediated communication is often inadequate. To balance the benefits and downsides of remote work, employers should consider individual positions to determine the best path forward.

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