Post title image: Where you work matters, so does what you're working on

Where you work matters, so does what you're working on

A deeper look at the statistics on remote work productivity.

Desk Notes

“WFH’s staunchest proponents just dropped a bomb: Fully remote workers are officially less productive.” Fortune Magazine, June 2023.

The debate about remote work and productivity can be a bit heavy on the rhetoric and light on the science.

This makes sense - measuring personal productivity is notoriously difficult - but it means that we often end up defaulting to a vibes based discussion.

But look behind the headlines and at the studies themselves and it rapidly becomes clear there’s a major gap in our understanding.

Because most of the papers in this space - particularly the ones most likely to get amplified in the way Fortune Magazine did - focus on (and reference) studies centred around tasks such as data entry and customer calls.

Belfort, Azoff et al (1987)Belfort, Azoff et al (1987)

I get why that’s been the focus, but these kinds of easily-measurable tasks are very different to the day to day working patterns of most remote-capable workers.

This is why I was so excited to read a super interesting new paper - from Anthony Diercks of the Federal Reserve Board - presented at last week’s Stanford remote work conference.

Diercks wondered whether findings related to standardised, routine tasks, were really applicable to every knowledge worker in the land?

So he decided that instead of heading off to the nearest call centre on, he’d just measure the productivity of his colleagues instead.

I’m not sure how popular that made him - but Anthony, I’m grateful.

He examined the number of working papers produced by the 12 Fed regional banks during the period that those banks shifted to remote work as a result of the pandemic.

He found that output actually increased by 25% compared to pre-pandemic (even with any covid-specific papers excluded), as did collaboration across different papers.

You might say - maybe even with last week’s Desk Note in mind - that it was the fact of the disruption that led to the increase.

But when he looked at output during a similarly big disruption in Fed-land - the 2008 financial crisis - he found no similar increase in productivity.

2008's most productive remote worker.2008's most productive remote worker.

It’s a great paper - with an obvious truth at its heart. Ultimately, how productive we are when working remotely is entirely dependent on the kind of work you’re doing.

The idea that you’d find productivity working in a busy office as - say - a novelist, is absurd.

On the other hand, if you’re cold-calling all night and day to get that lead or deal over the line,  faced with a barrage of no after no… you’re going to want people around you to keep the energy going.

One study Diercks mentions makes the point well. It asked people to work on both simple, repetitive tasks as well as more complex, creative tasks, in both remote and in-office environments.

The authors found that working remotely whilst doing simple tasks led to a drop in productivity, whilst on the tasks that required creative thought, productivity increased by 20% when working away from the office.

e.g. coming up with Coke adse.g. coming up with Coke ads

This makes sense to me. I hear it every day from our users - how being able to step away from the every day and really focus on something 10xed their creativity.

Location alone does not decide productivity. There’s not some natural hierarchy out there of workplaces for us to discover. It’s intensely related to the type of work you do. The projects you’re working on. Your priorities at that moment. Are you grinding, or thinking?

So the next time you see any headline about productivity cratering as soon as someone steps outside of an office, remember it’s not one size fits all.

When it comes to the conditions in which you do your best work, it’s personal.

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