Productivity in times of working from home

In March 2020, many of us switched to working from home. It looked like the time we were saving on the commute and social office chat made us more productive in the first months. According to this article and referenced Standford study, 47% more productive and 13% more performant. But how did things turn out to look like in the long run, as we’re not close to one year into this arrangement?   

The initial surveys around productivity in working from home and the future of work  

Increased productivity is attributed to a quieter and more convenient work environment allowing for more time to focus, fewer breaks and sick days, plus savings in commute time. This is valid, of course, for people who don’t have to take care of kids during work hours. The same study talks about improved work satisfaction and a cut by 50% in attrition rate. Still, now close to a year in working from home mode, do these results keep up? More and more companies start to see that the lack of social interaction affects employees. The state of their mental health hinders productivity, leading to a decrease in job satisfaction.  

The initial hype might have resulted from the adrenaline everyone was feeling with the change of the working environment. Many people were losing jobs, so the ones still at work did what they could to remain visible in their bosses’ eyes, working like crazy to prove they can provide value even working from home (WFH).  

Before the pandemic, most studies inclined towards an adverse effect of employees and productivity in working from home on the company’s bottom line. Some studies indicated that creatives that need the time to focus, undisturbed, can perform better while working outside the office. Still, boring tasks can only be performed efficiently in the office, as distractions are easy to bring along and welcomed at home.   

Of course, the pandemic forced everyone to shift their thinking. New results showed WFH can work and can be so much more beneficial for some employees and companies. Many businesses realize the future of work won’t mean going back to a 5-day job in the office any longer. The best answer will probably mean flexibility and a mix of working places, allowing and trusting the employee to choose what works best to be productive daily.  

Mental health and social isolation  

Even if people adapted quickly and nicely to the work from home environment, working like crazy to prove themselves, the hype wore out over time, and people are hitting a wall. They are tired, fed-up, and burned out as the stressors around them have mounted. Pressure points such as caring for children, work-life balance, navigating all the new norms of life and work during pandemic have built over time and are unlikely to ease up anytime soon.  

People have also taken lesser days off, this contributing a lot to their mental sanity. After the hype, surveys showed that employees didn’t feel engaged, despite being more productive. The sentiments growing were those of anxiety and lack of alignment with their work team. Furloughs, the loss of face-to-face contact during the day, and the spike in calls, meetings, and formal messaging have only added to the overall pressure.  

Productivity vs. performance  

Even with the hype in increased productivity during the first months of working from home in the pandemic, the question of its effects on performance is still valid. Performance doesn’t rely solely on productivity. It also includes things like engagement, learning, commitment, growth, innovation, and contribution to the community as a whole. But how can these be sustained in social isolation in the longer term?  

Another aspect to consider is how we measure productivity against time. Maybe the increased productivity is related to the fact people actually work more hours – instead of commuting, chatting over coffee in the office or going on holidays. It’s not like employees can do more during the same amount of time just by being at home.  

Based on these readings, I believe that work from home during the pandemic can increase productivity and performance, as long as many things are kept in balance. Having a dedicated workplace at home, switching off work to do other things, practicing sports at home, good nutrition, connection with family, taking breaks from time to time, and a clear direction or a goal at your job are things that contribute to good mental health and productivity and performance. Take a look at this article about Hygge, the Danish way to happiness and living, you might find some helpful tips about balance and navigating all these stressors.   

What about you? How did you navigate the pandemic in terms of productivity and performance?