Did Return-to-Office Mandates Increase Productivity?

A recent survey concludes that low employee productivity will continue to be a challenge, despite 91 percent of leaders mandating some in-office presence each week.

With the New Year, future-of-work experts believe CEOs will admit that return-to-office (RTO) mandates did not increase productivity.

“By the end of 2024, executives will be forced to admit their RTO mandates did not improve productivity, read the top-line prediction from Annie Dean, longtime flexible work evangelist and head of Team Anywhere at software firm Atlassian,” Jane Their reported in a Yahoo! Finance article.

Dean points out that a survey from her firm “concluded that low productivity is expected to be a prime challenge for most of them [CEOs] in the coming year—as it’s been in years past. That’s despite the fact that nearly all (91 percent) of the leaders surveyed currently mandate some amount of in-office presence per week,” writes Their.

The absence of a commute and the fewer distractions if the employee lives alone or has a spouse and/or children who are out of the house during the daytime are some of the reasons I can think of for why productivity rises when employees work from home. The larger reason may be that (most) people are happier in their own environment than at the office. There is a loneliness factor for those of us working at home who live alone, but there also can be loneliness in an office filled with people.

I have experienced being a work group or team of one and having colleagues who are in meetings all day and can’t talk, even when they want to. When you’re alone in your mission, feelings of loneliness and alienation increase, even when sitting at a bullpen-style workstation in a crowded office.

The Greatest Measure of Productivity

I have always believed the greatest measure of productivity is what the employee produces, rather than the amount of time it takes them to produce it. In an office, it may take an employee twice as long to finish what they would finish at home. In the traditional workplace, you’re expected to get there at the same time every day and leave at the same time, regardless of how little or how much work you have done.

Freed from the bounds of the office arrival and departure schedule, the focus is solely on what was accomplished on any given day. The employee who arrives early to the office and leaves late, yet accomplishes little, no longer has cover. They can no longer whine about the long hours they are working. Just showing up is no longer enough.

The tricky part of productivity is how to measure it when an employee doesn’t have regular deliverables as part of their job. What if their job is meetings and decision-making? How do we judge this person’s productivity? Is evidence of their productivity that the financial numbers are going in the right direction? Are productivity and effectiveness the same thing?

Productivity vs. Effectiveness

Some people get a tremendous amount done, but they are not actually achieving the right things, even when those things have been assigned to them. They have been productive, but what they produced was not effective.

In the new at-home work environment, there may be a greater focus on effectiveness, so that just turning in work won’t be enough, especially for those who don’t even have to do that much.

Decision-Making Effectiveness

Another factor to consider is decision-making. I haven’t seen any studies yet about the effectiveness of decision-making in a home office. But I did find this Forbes article from March 2020, when the pandemic lockdown had just begun. It was hard to imagine in those early days of most people working from home that decision-making, approached in a smart way remotely, could be just as effective as it could be when done in-office.

The only bad decision-making I noticed when we were all at home were business deals made using business metrics from the highly atypical time of the pandemic. I know of a media company that made a deal with investors based on pandemic numbers, which in this business’ case, were better than usual with readers at home with tons of time on their hands. After the atypical circumstances of the pandemic passed, so did the impressive financial results. Would being at an in-person office during that time have given these decision-makers greater perspective to understand that the advantages of the situation were as temporary as the situation itself? It’s hard to tell.

The key to being both productive and effective at home is to ensure that no employee feels isolated in their work. They should understand how their solitary work fits in with the larger picture of aiming toward profitability, and should know that the things they are so productive at will make their company stronger.

How do you gauge both productivity and effectiveness in work when employees spend most of their time at home?