The pandemic brought the long-contested question around the effects of flexibility on organizational productivity to the forefront of our conversation about work. And now, as we re-emerge, the debate has escalated even more as return-to-office plans clash with the reluctance of workers to return to traditional office settings. A dynamic has emerged needlessly pitting employees against employers, who are taking both carrot and stick approaches. Large employers have begun offering incentives, both financial and of the “Taco Tuesday,” variety, while at the same time issuing threats related to performance goals, all to coax employees back to the office multiple days per week.
And all this comes despite compelling evidence of worker-reported gains in productivity during the work from home (WFH) period, with the 2021 Microsoft Work Trend Index showing that 87% of workers felt productive, while on the flipside, 85% of leaders had little to no confidence that their workers were producing.
What’s clear is that flexible work is here to stay, and it is time to put “productivity paranoia” to rest. The problem is that so much of this debate occurs without considering the research on flexibility and productivity. And there is a lot of research. Trying to understand the “best” ways to work flexibly sent me down a rabbit hole of researching 120-hours of peer-reviewed material spanning 40 years and multiple distinct types of flexible work arrangements (FWAs). As the first part in a series on productivity in our new world of work, here are my five key takeaways.
1. Flexible work, works!
Thirty-two peer-reviewed journal articles came to the same conclusion: when done well, flexibility in when, where, and/or how employees work can lead to gains in productivity, employee engagement, well-being, retention, and big cost savings for businesses.
2. Intrinsic factors matter more than extrinsic factors.
Great news for organizations – the debate about flexible and hybrid work is missing the point that intrinsic factors are more important than when and where people work. And that’s because the skill sets below can be taught.
- Proactive coping skills: AKA. Resilience. Individuals with strong proactive coping skills are often better planners, who have strong prioritization and workload management abilities, and have tools to help manage stress.
- Future time orientation: Future time orientation is about an individual’s ability to think about their place in the future, to continue setting goals regardless of stressors, and to see projects through to the end.
- High self-efficacy: Past success begets future success. Those who believe they are productive workers, who have seen successes previously in their careers, are most likely to be successful in flexible work arrangements.
- Strong well-being practices: Organizations and individuals with robust well-being programs and practices help individuals to set better boundaries and prioritize, whether they are working in-office or at home.
3. Motivation and loyalty increase with autonomy.
If organizations want to increase productivity, it is critical that employees feel trusted. Giving individuals even a small degree of flexibility in when, where, and/or how they work drives loyalty, motivation, and productivity.
4. Clear, concise, and frequent communication is key!
To mitigate social isolation, loss of meaning, and worker detachment, it is important for leaders to communicate the organizational purpose and key employee priorities well and often. It also helps to add face-to-face interactions and emotional check-ins to quality conversations between employer and employee .
5. Productivity for knowledge workers needs to be redefined.
Very few articles evaluate causal productivity of knowledge workers. In most cases the metrics are the more subjective employee-reported productivity. Rather than looking at bodies in chairs, which is not a reliable measure of productivity, we need to develop individual performance goals that align to overall business objectives.
The pandemic drove both the ability to research and the need for more research in the area of flexible work as it relates to productivity. Many questions about how to measure productivity in the knowledge worker population, and the long-term effects of hybrid work remain. The debates around where, when, and how to work will continue, and will hopefully help us to redesign work practice in a way that enables “human sustainability.”
The debate on issues like hybrid work, productivity, flexibility and employee well-being is going to continue. And that’s a good thing. But the more we can build our future of work based on the data, the bigger win-win it will be for both employees and employers.
Throughout this series, I will focus on various aspects of my research including Top Tips for Employees to Increase Productivity in FWAs, Top Tips for Leaders to Ensure and Measure Productivity in FWAs, and a discussion of Frontline Worker Flexibility Options. Please comment or ask questions below. While I cannot guarantee I know the answer off the bat, I look forward to the conversation.
The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of Takeda. Takeda does not guarantee the accuracy or reliability of the information provided herein.