Between Twitter's Elon era, Zuckerberg's Meta, and more, remote work has quickly become a scapegoat for large tech companies’ inefficiencies and poor business decisions. In the height of the pandemic, companies boasted about the way they were able to pivot to remote and hybrid work models; about how productivity and creativity skyrocketed. Now, many of those same companies are turning heel and blaming remote work for decreased productivity.
But why is this the case? Well, here we'll do some sleuthing to get to the bottom of this and more — is remote work actually decreasing productivity? What does the data show? Why are companies suddenly blaming remote work?
Grab your magnifying glass and bowler cap, dear Watson, because it's time to investigate.
The pushback on remote work is hot right now
It's no surprise remote work has become a mainstay for companies and industries of all sizes. While the pandemic was to blame for the forced shift toward it, it's now here to stay and has become a standard feature for attracting talent. A recent survey conducted by McKinsey & Company bolstered this fact when it found that "when people have the chance to work flexibly, 87% of them take it. This dynamic is widespread across demographics, occupations, and geographies. The flexible working world was born of a frenzied reaction to a sudden crisis but has remained as a desirable job feature for millions."
But why has there been pushback among executives and media talking heads? Even critically acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell criticized remote work by saying, "It's not in your best interest to work at home . . . I know it's a hassle to come to the office. But if you're just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live?"
This, coming from the person who used to boast regularly about starting his days on the sofa with a laptop, "writing in coffee shops for a living", and that he "hates desks. Desks are now banished."
Regardless, he's not the only one chirping about the pitfalls of remote work. There's also been highly publicized corporate pushback. Here are a few of their talking points:
- It's easier to build culture in person
- Productivity declines
- Commuting to and from work provides "ramp up" and "ramp down" barriers between work and personal life
But the fact of the matter is, productivity isn't declining. At least not because of remote work. There are plenty of ways to build a sustainable, solid, and inclusive workplace culture with remote workers. And people can create liminal spaces between work and home in a variety of ways, even while working remotely.
But remote work is still on the chopping block
It's more likely that companies feel the need to justify real estate/office expenses. Old-school management styles that involve higher levels of control over employees are also at play. These motivations are already well observed in the growing popularity of employee monitoring software. Additionally, remote work is a relatively new concept, so it's easier to point the finger than it is to address pre-existing, deeply entrenched inefficiencies.
There are certainly ways for remote work to be inefficient, but it is not itself inherently inefficient. Let's explore how.
What actually causes inefficiencies with remote workers?
In his March 14 memo to employees, Mark Zuckerberg said he believes it’s “easier to build trust in-person and that those relationships help us work more effectively.” His statement is, well, true. It is easier to build trust in person. Trust does make teams work more effectively. However, it reveals a major flaw in the way many businesses currently conceive remote work.
Remote work requires more effort from managers
Businesses rarely select the right talent for management positions. The result? Low and wildly-variable employee engagement. To make matters worse, only 10% of people are estimated to have the talent to manage—skills that are even more vital for keeping remote employees engaged. So should inefficiencies be attributed to remote work? Not necessarily. In reality, remote work outcomes have simply illustrated that managers who were selected for their talent, rather than their ability to lead, have:
- Failed to cultivate accountability.
- Failed to motivate individuals and generate buy-in from their teams.
- Failed to build the trust that Zuckerberg rightly stated helps teams work more effectively.
While managers are partially to blame, the truth is that many of them aren’t exactly set up for success. Regardless of where work is done, trust and accountability are linchpins for the success of any business. But in too many instances, managers haven’t been supported or given additional training to successfully build that level of trust with remote workers.
Is remote work actually inefficient?
We should also consider that notions about remote workers being ‘inefficient’ compared to those in-office may literally be wrong. In the same March memo, Zuckerberg stated that early-career engineers “perform better when they work in-person with teammates at least three days a week.”
What’s not clear is how this “better performance” was measured. Were these in-office workers actually producing more and better work? Or were they simply the unwitting beneficiaries of their managers’ proximity bias?
The bottom line is that remote workers are equally, if not more productive than their in-office colleagues. Leaders seem unable to accept this, but data backs up remote work time and time again. Remote workers are:
What appears to be true is that leaders are wrongly correlating time at the desk to productivity and assuming that remote workers are spending less time working. Interestingly, they’re wrong on both points. Remote workers are actually spending more time working than they did at the office and are more productive to boot.
Then why are tech companies blaming remote work?
So if remote work isn’t the actual problem, why are some of the world’s leading tech companies laying the blame on remote work? Were these not the same companies who hailed remote work as the future a few years ago? Why the change of heart? There are several contributing factors.
A return to office is a return to comfort for executives and investors
To begin with, remote work on the scale that we’ve seen in the last three years is brand new. And new things can be scary (hello, AI). The same novelty that businesses leaned into to attract top talent during the COVID-19 pandemic is now being framed as an unproven, volatile work style. Under greater economic pressure and scrutiny from investors, some companies are rolling back the years and heading into the office/comfort zone.
Blame remote work, hide entrenched inefficiencies
Secondly, moaning about the ills of remote work are a convenient way to hide other inefficiencies that have been part of a business far longer than remote work has. For example, it’s easier for Elon Musk to say that remote work is inefficient than it is to confront the fact that the social media platform he bought has only turned a profit twice during its entire existence. Similarly, when Meta’s demands that its employees return to the office are filtering through the news, it hides the fact that the organization has been bloated with hierarchy through its years of meteoric growth.
Shareholders don’t like to see assets go to waste
Lastly, as tech companies face a less-than-ideal economic environment, reframing remote work as a failed venture can justify continued real estate expenses. For its part, Meta has been scaling back its office space. However, Amazon is still building a $2.5 billion headquarters in Arlington, VA. Shareholders might question such a cost if butts weren’t in the presumably-expensive chairs, but Amazon has also demanded workers return to the office.
How companies can improve efficiency in remote workforce
Contrary to what leaders like Musk and Zuckerberg believe, demanding remote workers return to the office isn’t the solution to increasing efficiency and productivity. There are several simple, actionable steps you can take to build a more efficient remote workforce. Here are just a few examples.
Effective communication is key
Clear and effective communication is critical to the success of any team, but it is especially important when managing remote teams. In fact, when it comes to remote work, it’s often better to over-communicate to ensure goals are clearly defined and to better understand any challenges your team faces. This doesn’t mean you should schedule a dozen different Zoom meetings every day or that you need to micromanage your team. Instead, check in with your team daily to get a sense of their successes and challenges.
Remember, part of being a good communicator is being a good listener, and the best way to get a sense of what is and isn’t working with your team is by listening to them. Make it known that you’re available to talk whenever your team needs it, and stay active on channels like Slack, Zoom, and email.
Provide regular feedback
Another part of effective communication is providing regular feedback. This can help remote team members stay motivated, improve their performance, and better understand what’s needed to succeed. Try to provide constructive feedback to team members regularly, highlighting their successes and providing helpful suggestions for improvement.
When giving feedback, try to be specific and identify the areas that were done well and the ones that need improvement. Telling an employee they did a great job on a project is nice, but it doesn’t give them any insight into what made the project successful. Instead, focus on highlighting the specific areas that were successful. If one area needs improvement, provide guidance on how the work could be improved.
Help employees build dedicated and well-equipped workplace setups
For remote workers to perform their jobs efficiently, they need workplace setups that provide them with all the tools they need to perform their jobs. But the responsibility to have all those tools readily available at home shouldn’t fall solely on your employees. Think about it like this: if you have employees that work in an office, you’re likely providing them with computers, monitors, desks, chairs, and many other things they might need to perform their job. So why wouldn’t you make the same investment in your remote employees?
Offering remote employees work at home stipends helps ensure that they have everything they need to efficiently perform their jobs without going into an office. But just because an employee is remote doesn’t mean they work from home. Maybe they don’t have adequate space in their homes for an office, or maybe they prefer having a dedicated workspace outside their homes. In this case, you could consider providing remote workers access to a local co-working space. Co-working spaces are significantly cheaper than leasing office spaces and come equipped with all the amenities to facilitate a productive work environment.
Foster a positive remote work culture
Building a healthy team culture can be challenging when everyone isn’t in the same place, but the benefits of doing so are worth the effort. Just as a toxic company culture can negatively impact morale and productivity, a positive workplace culture can help employees be more efficient and productive.
Having a positive remote work culture means more than just having virtual happy hours or team-building exercises. The core of a positive culture is having a mission and a set of values that emphasizes the well-being and success of your team. People want to work at places where they feel valued and can grow in their careers. So, while holding virtual happy hours is a great way to connect your remote teams, you also need to provide opportunities for them to learn new skills and advance within the company. Offering things like professional development workshops and providing access to online courses shows your employees that you’re invested in their long-term success.