More than two years ago, many of us started working from home at least some of the time. So now the novelty has worn off, are hybrid workers more productive and happier than those working full-time in an office?

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The ongoing post-pandemic transition from employees working full-time in the office (or equivalent workplace) to more regularly working from home, aka remote working, has been met with many concerns, objections, and even scaremongering by employers.

However, many of the arguments against remote working seem to be emotional, or even ideological, rather than rational. Accordingly, workers have been passionately resisting plans to reduce their remote working arrangements.

But looking beyond accusations of lazy employees, or greedy landlords and managers, what does the actual science say?

Illustration of person working
© Joe Waldron

Are remote workers less productive?

The issue of productivity has long been a primary focus of the world of work. Logically, employers want employees to be as productive as possible, because the organisation wants to get as much done as possible for the same wage bill. However, this obsession isn’t always helpful, or even rational.

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Many persistent (and annoying) productivity myths have ended up circulating in society. You could even argue that the modern management obsession with ‘employee happiness’ is more about increasing productivity than any genuine concern for employees and their wellbeing.

Predictably, the debate around working from home quickly became embroiled with concerns about productivity. The thinking was that workers wouldn’t get as much done when deprived of the resources of the workplace, the necessary management structure, the vital interactions with co-workers, and so on. Except that’s apparently not true.

Surveys reveal most remote workers report being equally, if not more productive. There are many factors that could be behind this, such as improved diet, better sleep, more exercise, greener environments and pleasant background music. All of these and more are linked to improved productivity, and are much more accessible for an employee when they don’t have to commute, or conform to the rigid rules or strict hierarchies of many workplaces.

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Granted, many remote workers report being less productive when working from home. And again, many factors could be behind this, like an unsuitable home environment, or roles that aren’t as suitable for a remote setup.

But one interesting study revealed that home workers who reported reduced productivity also reported worse mental health. In this case, is poor mental health a cause or effect of reduced productivity? Remember, most of the up-to-date data on this subject was obtained mid-pandemic, a context that led to widespread harm to mental health.

Perhaps for many workers, being unable to work effectively from home amplified insecurities about career and finances, therefore increasing anxiety and reducing mental health? But remote workers reporting increased productivity were also experiencing the same scenario.

Maybe the relief of keeping their job during such fraught times, and not having to mix with co-workers, caused reduced stress and subsequent perceived increases in productivity? Everyone’s situation will have been unique, so it’s hard to say for sure. While many are saying working from home will ‘stick’, it’ll be interesting to see how it affects productivity going forwards.

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© Joe Waldron

Can remote workers communicate effectively?

Why did the pandemic and lockdowns negatively affect mental health for so many people? One reason was the increased loneliness and isolation. We humans are social creatures who thrive on interactions with others. If we’re denied them (by social-distancing laws, for example), our mental health suffers.

Similarly, interactions with other people are key aspects of many modern jobs. Whether collaborating on projects, discussing strategies, planning constructions, presenting information, dealing with medical emergencies or getting constructive feedback as part of your development, it’s vanishingly rare that a worker can do their job with no involvement from anyone.

Subsequently, those who object to remote working argue that it prevents effective communication, cooperation and collaboration between workers. And according to the data, they do have a point.

A major study published in Nature Human Behaviour in September 2021 revealed that when 60,000+ Microsoft employees worked remotely during the pandemic, communication between employees and groups slowed down, and became more formulaic and self-contained. Other studies show that team performance is reduced when some or all members work remotely.

Humans have spent millions of years communicating face-to-face, and as far as our brains are concerned, modern technology, however advanced and sophisticated, still cannot faithfully replicate all the rich and subtle cues it involves. While things like social media can help with loneliness, they can't alleviate it entirely.

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“Many people reported feeling exhausted from a day spent on Microsoft Teams,” says Dr Chris Blackmore, a mental health specialist from the University of Sheffield.

"Was it the level of attention needed to really engage with online meetings? The demands of listening, and keeping track of multiple voices? Or an increased background of anxiety, both from the pandemic and from new ways-of-being? For some people, the lack of physical presence and reduced body language was a barrier. They missed something about the workplace – the buzz of bumping into people, having impromptu conversations, the small talk and informal chats. This may be hard to put a value on, but it can contribute to a feeling of belonging.”

While in-person engagement is the ideal, studies suggest technological communication methods, particularly multisensory ones like video calls, can help people form useful social connections and deliver viable feedback.

This issue should also be placed in a wider context. Yes, employers may not like how employees aren’t collaborating as much when working from home, but how much of their role actually requires collaboration?

‘Higher-ups’ may relish holding meetings and all-day events, but more typical workers often bemoan the amount of time spent in long-winded meetings that could have been an email. If interaction and collaboration is something that’s expected of employees, rather than actually required, remote working would mean they get more done.

Even if collaboration is a welcome and necessary part of a role, remote working can still mean enhanced performance overall. A study published in PLOS One in March 2021 suggests that the drop in more collaborative performance is balanced by an enhanced output on tasks that require a more focused, individual approach.

Ultimately, remote working seemingly has a negative impact on worker communication and collaboration. But when you consider that some of this ‘communication’ will have been deemed unnecessary, or even counterproductive, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

© Joe Waldron

Does working from home offer a better work-life balance?

In the modern world, we’re constantly told about the importance of a healthy work-life balance. The exact meaning of the phrase is somewhat debated, but it’s generally agreed that you need to strike a good balance between how much time and energy you invest in your work, and how much you invest in your home life, family, relationships, and everything else.

A good work-life balance is difficult to achieve at the best of times, given the aforementioned obsession with ‘productivity’ in most workplaces, but the impact of remote working has received a lot of attention. How can you maintain a work-life balance when both occur in the same place?

It’s not just a rhetorical question; it makes scientific sense, given what we know about human psychology and neurology. Our brains organise the information we use to navigate the world, and the events we experience, by way of cognitive frameworks labelled ‘schemas’.

We use schemas to determine how to act and respond in different situations and contexts, leading to the formation of 'social schemas'. That’s why we behave in a certain way around our closest relatives, another way around old school friends, another with our university friends, and so on.

This is particularly obvious in the workplace, a familiar context with specific rules, expectations and norms. Our brains are sensitive to boundaries between places, so would logically find it easier to get into 'work mode’ when entering a context set up for exactly that.

In contrast, trying to work and maintain your home life in the same place should prove more challenging. Our brains find it difficult to actively ‘shift gears’ like that, so it would likely require more cognitive effort to do your job in a context where you don’t normally. A physical separation between your home and your workplace would be advantageous here.

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“One of the big issues people can have working from home is the ability to switch from ‘work mode’ to ‘home mode’,” says neuroscientist Ginny Smith, author of Overloaded: How Every Aspect Of Your Life Is Influenced By Your Brain Chemicals.

“Some people find it hard to concentrate on their work, getting distracted by the washing up, or the lure of the TV. Others have the opposite problem, struggling to switch off at the end of the day, and finding they are going to bed with work issues still whizzing around in their heads.”

According to Smith, one thing you could do to help with this would be to have dedicated ‘work zones’ in your house. “If you have a spare room you can use as an office, perfect, but if not, it might just be one end of the kitchen table. But try to make sure that it’s the same place every day, and it’s not somewhere you usually relax or sleep,” she says.

There are other things you can do to tell yourself when it’s time to work. For example, you could go for a short walk at the start and end of each working day to give yourself a ‘false commute’. Some people also swear by wearing shoes during their working day, then kicking them off when they finish.

However, once again, there are two sides to this story. Yes, having a dedicated environment for working should make it easier to enter that ‘work’ mindset, but this doesn’t factor in how much mental effort going to the workplace demands.

In short, regularly going to the office can be cognitively exhausting. Long commutes, a strict schedule you don’t create, interacting with people you wouldn’t normally choose to, little privacy or personal space, and seeing no tangible outcome of your efforts are all regular occurrences in the workplace. These cause stress and mental exhaustion, often to the point where your mental health suffers and you lose the ability to maintain your home life.

Remote work reduces this mental drain substantially. This may explain why some studies suggest working from home some of the time reduces the demand of working from the office, rather than exacerbating it.

It’s not that working from home doesn’t require mental effort, because it does. But it could well be less mentally demanding than working in a designated office five days a week.

Illustration of police, workman and doctor
© Joe Waldron

What about people who can't work from home?

Ultimately, everything that’s been said so far about the relative pros and cons of remote working should come with a massive caveat: what type of work are we talking about?

Most of the debate around remote working versus the workplace focuses on occupations like financial services, administration, software development, various types of creative industries, and so on. Basically, ‘workplace’ means ‘office’.

This makes some sense, in the UK at least. Our economy is largely service-based, much of which involves office roles. And since the rise of the internet, office work is arguably the easiest to transplant to a home context. Indeed, a ‘home office’ is a common feature of many houses.

But not all work is based in an office, and not all jobs can be done from the home. If the pandemic taught us anything, it was how vital supermarket employees, truck drivers, carers and frontline medical staff are. At present, none of these key roles can be done from home. Not that they could never be. Some may even benefit from it, particularly in the medical field.

Remote surgery has been researched for a number of years, and the pandemic saw a spike in interest in remote mental health therapies. Such things could feasibly reduce the odds of human error and widen accessibility for the vulnerable.

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Nonetheless, it remains the case that there are many jobs out there that can only be done ‘in person’. This is where social and cultural divisions can arise. On the global scale, first world ‘developed’ economies invariably involve far more jobs that can be done remotely, while poorer developing nations are considerably more dependent on construction, manufacturing and agriculture.

Studies suggest that if working from home does actually produce significant gains in productivity and worker happiness and subsequently becomes the norm, all the gains of such a move are likely to be concentrated in wealthier countries.

Such imbalances are not only on the global scale, either. It’s been observed, repeatedly, that those people who do vital roles that cannot be done remotely, like cleaners, shelf-stackers and carers, are paradoxically among the lowest paid in our society. If remote working saves money and stress, such benefits are less likely to be experienced by those who could use them the most.

And even among those who can feasibly work remotely, there are divisions. It’s all well and good listing the benefits of working from home, but what if your home isn’t suitable? What if you’ve not got the space? Or your internet is terrible? Or if you share your home with too many others? Or if you live with someone you don’t get on with, or worse?

However, using this unfortunate aspect of the modern world as an argument against remote working quickly leads to a false dichotomy. This is not a zero-sum game. If we deny those who can work from home the benefits of doing so, then it does not magically make things better for those people who can’t. It ultimately just makes everyone unhappier overall.

The unfair imbalances in our society are a deeply unfortunate fact of life. Doing something about them will require sustained and widespread effort into creating lasting structural change. This, arguably, will be even harder than it already is if many people are denied the benefits of home working for no logical reason.

© Joe Waldron

The hybrid working toolkit

How we can all work effectively, wherever we are based

Embrace autonomy

One core element of many of the apparent benefits of remote working is increased autonomy, from a worker’s perspective. When people feel they have more control over their lives and situation, they’re invariably happier, less stressed and more productive. As a result, employers actively forcing workers to return to the office would reduce their perceived autonomy
even more. This would likely lead to reduced worker productivity and satisfaction.

Be flexible

It need not be an all-or-nothing approach. Some studies suggest a blend of home and office working is the best approach, allowing workers to experience a ‘best of both worlds’ effect. By letting workers figure out their own balance, it means those who want to work from home can do so, and those who don’t want to, don’t need to.

Communicate effectively

Effective communication is possible via technological platforms, like video conferencing. But it does seem to require more effort and attention, so it would help to specifically allow time for this. This may be achievable by distinguishing between essential and non-essential communication, and focusing solely on the former.

Keep an eye out for problems

Much of the information we have about the pros and cons of working from home was acquired in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This will have had a considerable influence over people’s attitudes to it, as well as the data obtained. As the pandemic becomes less pressing as an issue, it would be useful to monitor subsequent changes in productivity and wellbeing.

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Authors

Dean is a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’. He is the author of the the popular Guardian Science blog ‘Brain Flapping’ (now ‘Brain Yapping’ on the Cosmic Shambles Network with accompanying podcast), the bestselling books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, and his first book aimed at teens, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It.

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