In the two years since knowledge sector employers implemented work-from-home policies during the pandemic, the lines of the debate over remote versus in-office work have shifted. On one side you have a majority of employees favoring remote work. On the other you have managers, and some workers, preferring a return to office.
Now, politics are involved, with state and local leaders asking companies like Meta (META) and Amazon (AMZN) to save downtown areas like San Francisco. However, as the debate has evolved over the past two years, a middle ground has emerged: Hybrid or flexible work schedules offer remote work options to some or all workers while also implementing a structure for in-office work.
Which is more productive: WFH or RTO?
In terms of measuring the productivity benefits of either path, results vary. Some studies find decreased worker productivity when working remotely, for a wide variety of reasons. For example, “productivity paranoia” leads workers to spend too much time on unproductive tasks to appear busier than they are—stemming from an insecurity that they are being outperformed by unseen coworkers.
Conversely, some studies show higher productivity among remote workers. Remote workers who save time by not having to commute end up devoting 40 percent of that “saved” time back to their work. This value can perhaps not be overstated, not only in terms of the increased work hours but in terms of employee wellbeing. A burgeoning movement before the pandemic blossomed after its onset, spawning the Great Resignation, followed by Quiet Quitting, as workers increasingly prioritized their own mental health.
What a lot of it comes down to, ultimately, is communication. Managers often overestimate the value of being able to physically see their workers in order to supervise them as effectively as possible. In the same vein, they underestimate their ability to maintain a sufficient level of connection and cohesion for out-of-office workers. When given the extra time provided by remote work, employees will devote time to work as well as their own well-being. Whether in the office or remotely, the best thing employers can do is invest in employee well-being.
Weighing costs, looking for benefits
There has been a large push by companies locked into expensive leases to increase in-office work. This could not be better exemplified by anything more than Zoom—the very platform that enabled such a rapid transition to remote work—requiring employees to return to the office two days a week. In Zoom’s defense, their employees also stand to gain some from in-office work, in terms of increased team cohesion and, again, increased productivity by some measures.
On a financial level, it’s estimated every worker moved from in-office to remote can save companies $10,000. However, that number can be misleading. Many companies are locked into long, expensive leases, usually with prohibitive fees for early termination. One approach has been the “hotelization” of office space, making office spaces as comfortable as possible to increase employee well-being and therefore productivity.
Additionally, over the past two years, many workers took advantage of remote work policies to escape pricey city centers. During the Great Resignation, many left jobs for new opportunities that previously would have been geographically unfeasible. Companies similarly took advantage, using remote work to broaden their hiring pool beyond the driving distance of a given office building.
Furthermore, workers from traditionally disenfranchised groups have a significantly stronger preference for remote work. A full return to office would risk alienating many of these workers, destroying any progress made by DEI initiatives so painstakingly implemented by companies over the past decade. In short, when it comes to choosing a winner between remote or in-office work, the answer falls somewhere in the middle.
Technology may be a win-win solution
The best way to do so is the same thing that enabled the Remote Revolution in the first place: implementing new technologies.
Wearable technology, long used to improve physical fitness via simple step-tracking apps, can improve mental well-being with equally simple solutions. Wearable tech can track biometric responses to stress. When paired with GPS and calendar data from the smartphones in our pockets stress spikes can be used to chart our stressors. Analyzing this data can enable us to better understand those stressors, and generate actionable insights on how to mitigate them.
When taken on a company-wide level, such data can even be used to understand when managers put employees in stressful situations, with top-level executives tackling stress along demographic or departmental lines able to work in tandem with individual employees understanding and tackling their own barriers not just to wellbeing, but to productivity as well.
While finding a long-term solution to the feasibility of in-office or remote work, and what that balance must look like, implementing such new technologies can build communication and trust, increasing employee wellbeing and productivity simultaneously.
Edward J. Beltran is a workplace expert and the CEO of Fierce, a global leadership development and training company based in Seattle.