COVID-19 + WFH: Have we Stumbled Upon the Biggest Productivity Increase of the Century?

COVID-19 + WFH: Have we Stumbled Upon the Biggest Productivity Increase of the Century?

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a lot of change for a lot of people, especially in the world of work. Numerous industries saw demand for their services suddenly drop to zero, resulting in staff getting huge pay cuts, long periods of unpaid leave and mass redundancies. Others - tech firms in particular - saw a massive surge in demand and needed to adapt and scale rapidly. However, perhaps the common feature of the pandemic was the need to work from home, to the extent that the initials “WFH” became universally recognised.

What surprised a lot of people - employers and employees alike - was the fact that working from home actually presented surprisingly few challenges. Indeed, with the development of cloud-based solutions making collaborative projects possible even across international borders, the world was already pretty well prepared for the need to self-isolate and enact social distancing.

As lockdowns went on, people have increasingly found that working from home has its advantages. Most significantly, the tedious, time-consuming and often expensive commute became a thing of the past. As social distancing regulations began to ease, the main question asked ceased being “when can we get back into the office?” and became “do we have to come back at all?”

Mood shift

An Ipsos survey for the World Economic Forum came up with some very telling results around the feelings of employees. Two-thirds of the 12,500 workers polled across 29 countries said that they would prefer to come back to a hybrid system, returning to the office for only part of their working week and including some time working from home. Almost a third went one step further, saying that they would leave their job if such a system was not offered and they were instead expected to return to the office full time.

A survey of British employers by Acas came up with similar results, finding that 55 per cent of respondents expected an increase in staff working remotely or from home post-COVID compared to pre-COVID, at least in a hybrid system. Once again, the proportion of those taking it further is considerable, with 49 per cent of respondents expecting an increase in the number of staff working full time from home.

Unsurprisingly, given this level of interest in hybrid and WFH approaches, several large companies have already nailed their colours to the mast, announcing such systems before the pandemic has even fully ended. Tech companies are leading the charge, in this regard, including Facebook, Google, Amazon and Spotify.

What are the advantages of a WFH future?

Suffice it to say, big companies like those mentioned above would not be so keen to implement such a massive reform of their working practises if there was not a significant benefit for them. Obviously employee retention is part of it and, as those surveys showed, top talent may well walk if WFH is not incorporated. But talent is generally replaceable, so what else is there behind this?

The answer is surprisingly simple: half of the workforce being forced to work from home produced a massive spike in productivity. And we mentioned the reason behind that spike in the introduction to this article - getting rid of the daily commute.

The average worker used to spend about an hour each day commuting and, shockingly, that figure has remained pretty much constant since Neolithic times. It’s hard to picture cavemen grumbling to themselves on their way to whatever passed for ‘work’ back then, but this is apparently the case, according to studies. However, thanks to the advancement of technology, that 60 minutes has been cut down to the 60 seconds it takes to walk from your bedroom to your home office, resulting in the equivalent of an estimately 13 per cent increase in productivity. As only about half of the workforce can realistically work from home (unless you can figure out a way for miners, factory workers, farmers and so on to work remotely), that drops to an overall increase of productivity of about 6.5 per cent.

What about face-to-face interactions?

One of the biggest fears employers faced as lockdown measures forced WFH on an unsuspecting world was the loss of face-to-face interactions. Managers, in particular, worried about how they would...well, manage, particularly with collaborative projects involving teams of people.

The reality is that fear is basically unsubstantiated. Teams adapted surprisingly quickly, with new approaches to working on group projects popping up and proving to be remarkably effective. A study on work communications during the WFH period found that the number of meetings had increased by about 13.5 per cent for most people, but the average duration of those meetings dropped by over 20 per cent, resulting in an overall drop in time spent in meetings of 11.5 per cent. Given the increase in productivity that has occurred over the same period, it turns out that face-to-face interactions were probably more of an obstacle to efficiency than an aid.

As for managers? Well, there’s a little sad news here. A survey by Future Forum found that middle management roles are increasingly redundant, to the extent that some commentators believe that they may be a dying breed. Better data tracking, feedback and reporting processes mean that skilled teams can effectively manage themselves, needing little more than a senior team member to coordinate and direct the others.

What about mental health?

A further concern employers had regarding working from home was the impact on the mental health of their employees. Say what you like about the office, but at least it encourages social interactions that you might miss out on when you’re spending days on end within the same four walls.

Once again, we have a survey to share, though the results are a little less clear cut, in this case. The main takeaway is that 45 per cent of those polled felt happier working from home, undermining that initial concern. However, nearly a third of respondents said that they felt significantly less happy. The survey also found concerning levels of musculoskeletal problems, anxiety and a reduced sense of connection with their colleagues. In the end, 74 per cent of people said they would welcome a hybrid approach, working partially at home and partially in the office, in order to get the best of both worlds.

What does the future hold?

Ultimately, employers and employees alike have been stumbling through the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, making the best of a bad situation as well as they can. Some have managed things better than others and most have been quick to adapt, implementing those measures that have been found to be effective and dropping those found to be detrimental.

Suffice it to say, the future is almost certainly one of hybrid work patterns, with time split between working from home and the office. A degree of choice will likely be included as not everyone has the best circumstances for working from home. In the survey shared in the last section, those who live in households with multiple housemates were far more likely to want to work in the office and those who live alone saw increased rates of depression and anxiety. On the flip side, those with partners and families much preferred working from home.

That depression will also likely be combated in the future, with a noticeable increase in the amount of mental health and wellness support offered by employers. The significant increase in depression rates experienced during the pandemic has thrown mental health into the spotlight where it has previously been a taboo subject. The money saved on stocking the drinks fridge and providing doughnuts in the office may need to be spent on counseling services instead, especially as poor mental health is already costing employers a lot of money.