Are remote workers really less productive than those working in offices? If you were to ask the employers issuing the latest wave of return-to-office orders, they would likely answer with a resounding “yes.” Many have argued that they want staff back in the office precisely because they will be more productive, collaborative, and creative if they are doing their jobs within the same physical space, away from the potential distractions that accompany working from home. 

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But the research tells a different story, with decidedly mixed conclusions. For some workers in some industries, such as those who work in call centers or in IT services, studies have found that working in an office does seem to improve productivity. But studies also suggest that knowledge workers can be significantly more productive when working remotely; Federal Reserve economist Anthony Diercks noted a 25% increase in his colleagues’ research output after the Fed went fully remote in 2020. And across the board, all sorts of factors play into a person’s ability to consistently meet and exceed their targets at work, including their commute times, family responsibilities, and physical and psychological health. These and other variables can also play a role in determining whether an employee is more comfortable – or effective – working at home than in an office. 

In other words, there is no single answer. Where it comes to doing their best work, different people have different needs – both across multiple industries, and within a single workplace. Truly effective leaders are those that not only take this reality to heart, but design their office policies accordingly. 

“Effective leadership hinges on masterful inquiry, keen and empathetic listening, and crafting team norms that champion both individual and business needs,” says Karl Giuseffi, Executive Vice President of research and innovation for the management consulting firm Talent Plus and a member of the Fast Company executive board. As Giuseffi sees it, that means holding candid and transparent conversations with team members about their ideal working conditions, and then actually listening to what they have to say. The goal should be to cultivate an understanding of what employees want and where they are coming from, and then translate that understanding into a plan that considers how to best align team members’ needs with the organization’s strategic objectives. 

Unfortunately, too many employers neglect to get this critical step right. Some will instead opt for a lip service approach, soliciting employee feedback through “superficial surveys,” Giuseffi says, before going ahead with a “rigid, one-size-fits-all policy” that neglects to take employees’ preferences into consideration. This not only can alienate team members and undercut their sense of significance within the organization, but may hamper engagement and, ultimately, retention. 

It’s also a missed opportunity. “A strategic, empathetic approach not only aligns with individual needs, but also unifies purpose and enthusiasm for work,” says Giuseffi. 

How Employee Resource Groups help build a culture of belonging

Jon Morgan, CEO of the management consulting firm Venture Smarter, agrees that it’s in everyone’s best interests for organizations to craft hybrid and flexible office policies that cater to employees’ diverse needs. In addition to opening lines of conversation with their team members and creating spaces for safe and open dialogue, Morgan suggests that managers involve employees in the decision-making process more directly, perhaps by leveraging employee resource groups (ERGs) to ensure that diverse perspectives are taken into consideration. 

“By valuing their input, managers can foster a sense of ownership among team members, leading to more inclusive and effective remote work policies,” Morgan says. 

Morgan also notes the importance of inclusivity when it comes to distributed teams, whose members are not co-located within a particular office or even in the same time zone (according to our recent research, enterprise executives acknowledge all knowledge workers collaborate in this way). He says,“acknowledging and respecting varying work styles is essential” for ensuring that individuals remain aligned with one another, and are collectively energized to create wonderful things. 

“Some team members might prefer structured schedules, while others thrive in a more flexible, autonomous environment,” Morgan says. “Employers can leverage project management tools to track productivity and collaborate effectively while allowing team members the freedom to choose the working methods that suit them best. Regular check-ins and feedback sessions can also help managers stay attuned to individual preferences and adjust strategies accordingly.”

Finally, leaders must remember that no plan or policy is ever set in stone. Individuals’ needs change and evolve, and team dynamics are similarly fluid. By maintaining an open and ongoing dialogue with team members, managers can better equip themselves to make protocol tweaks and accommodations as needed. 

Agatha Relota Luczo, the founder and Chief Creative Officer of the clean beauty company Furtuna Skin, recommends incorporating working style check-ins as part of the performance review process. “When you’re having a check-in with an employee, ask them how their current setup is working for them and what they may need to thrive even more,” she says. With a team that’s largely remote, Relota Luczo finds that simple routines for touching base can go a long way toward ensuring that everyone feels empowered to do their very best work. 

In short, the question is not whether remote employees are more or less productive than in-office workers, or vice versa. A better question for proactive leaders to ask is whether their workplace policies help or hinder their current employees’ success. 

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