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83% of Employers Say Remote Worker Productivity Is Up — Why Return To the Office?

Learn what’s next for the future of work and the workplace after COVID-19 vaccines. Hint: Employees and employers differ on what the office is actually for.

Colleagues at a work table
[©VISUALSPECTRUM/Stocksy United]

It took mere months for millions of American office workers to become accustomed to the flexibility and autonomy of working remotely. Even now, with over 122 million Americans having received at least one vaccination dose against COVID-19, 20 to 25% of workforces in advanced economies will work remotely three to five days a week. That’s four to five times more remote work than was happening pre-pandemic. That’s largely because remote worker productivity has increased during the pandemic.

The market for IT jobs posted its fourth consecutive month of gains in March, driven in part by companies looking for tech experts to support remote workers. The future of work after COVID-19 can be summed up in two words: flexible and distributed

Need proof? Some major companies, like Facebook, Github, and Twitter, have employed a Head of Remote Work to fully empower and support, not just allow, remote work. This shows we’ve moved beyond simply enduring this arrangement while the virus persists, and that we are entering a permanent shift in the way we work.

The distributed workforce of the future

It’s clear remote worker productivity has remained high throughout the pandemic. PWC reported that 83% of employers said the shift to remote work has been successful for their company, up from 73% in its June 2020 survey.  

In another survey on workplace productivity by Boston Consulting Group, 60% of workers said they want flexibility not only in where, but when they work. 

“In the future, we’ll see an increasingly distributed workforce in a workplace whose physical footprint will have shifted beyond recognition, and will serve very different needs,” noted Adriana Dahik, a BCG managing director and partner.

Reinventing the workplace, wrote Debbie Lovich, a BCG managing director and senior partner, “will be essential if companies are to meet employee desires for flexibility while harnessing their potential for productivity and remaining competitive when it comes to recruiting and retaining the best talent.” 

To that last point, according to the Society of Human Resources Management, when companies employ more remote workers they have access to a much deeper and diverse talent pool. There could also be a business advantage, depending on industry, to having workers spread out across multiple time zones.

It’s not about how many hours you spend in front of the computer. If you can decide on a number of business outcomes you’re expected to deliver on, and you have the autonomy to do that, and your managers trust that you will manage outcomes effectively, that’s success.

Karen Mangia, author of “Working From Home: Making the New Normal Work for You”

The consequences of a distributed, remote workforce are profound, impacting everything from housing and urban planning to the role of offices themselves. It can also affect how employers view productivity, recruitment, the environment, equality, and even our personal happiness and well-being. 

We focus on two of these implications: the impact of a distributed workforce on productivity and the new role of the office in this much-more-remote working world.

The impact on remote worker productivity 

Initially, the big fear with remote work was that productivity would tank. However, according to PWC, employee productivity has only improved over time. Fifty-two percent of executives said in December that productivity had improved, versus 44% who said the same in June. This, said PWC, “should dispel concerns among skeptics that work-from-home is less effective.”  

The question for employers is how they can maintain and improve productivity in the long term. 

In her new book “Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere,” Tsedal Neeley said productivity stems from the trifecta of: 

  • Team results, or delivering on expected goals 
  • Individual growth, or a sense of personal development and wellbeing
  • Team cohesion, or ensuring the team operates as one unit 

For teams to be effective, she wrote, “Each member must feel optimistic about their individual role, what they can offer the team, and what the team can offer them.”

Multi-ethnic colleagues at a table
[©VICTOR TORRES/Stocksy United]

Outcomes should replace productivity as a success metric

Karen Mangia literally wrote the book on remote work. The Salesforce Vice President of Customer and Market Insights has been working remotely since 2002, and in spring 2020 published “Working From Home: Making the New Normal Work for You.” 

She said that at the organizational and individual level, everyone needs to pause and figure out what’s working and what’s not. “We all have to question whether we’re working in a sustainable way,” she said, adding that outcomes should replace productivity as a success metric when measuring remote work.

“It’s not about how many hours you spend in front of the computer. If you can decide on a number of business outcomes you’re expected to deliver on, and you have the autonomy to do that, and your managers trust that you will manage outcomes effectively, that’s success.”

Employers and employees differ on the purpose of an office. Employers believe it’s largely for increasing employee productivity and meeting with clients. Employees see it as a place to collaborate and securely access documents and equipment.

This may require a realignment of expectations, which makes communication between teams and between individuals and managers a key variable. Mangia offered two other suggestions. First, workers should “divest before they invest,” which means that before saying yes to a project, decide what you will say no to to make room. Second, managers should delegate as much as they can. “It’s important to ask yourself what you’re owning that you really don’t need to own, which goes back to the notion of trusting peers to get it done.” 

Workers also need to consider advocating on their own behalf. It’s easier for accomplishments and output to fall through the cracks when you’re not working alongside your peers. Now that we know remote work is a long-haul reality, individuals need to ask themselves what they’re doing to broker greater visibility, while leaders need to create regular opportunities to observe and listen to their teams.

What about the office? 

Offices will never go away. But everything about them, including what they represent, is changing dramatically. As we wrote in May of 2020, office design will evolve to accommodate safe distances, fewer interactions, and even technology that alerts workers when they’re too close to each other. But with many more people expected to work remotely at least part of the time, the larger questions are: What is the office actually for? What purpose will it serve? 

“We need to understand not only who is coming back, but what people are doing when they’re there. We need to understand their motivations for coming to the office, and tailor office design to that,” said Matthew Buecher, global real estate design leader at Salesforce. 

According to PWC, employers and employees differ on the purpose of an office. Employers believe it’s largely for increasing employee productivity and meeting with clients. Employees see it as a place to collaborate and securely access documents and equipment.

Now that we know remote work is a long-haul reality, individuals need to ask themselves what they’re doing to broker greater visibility, while leaders need to create regular opportunities to observe and listen to their teams.

Whatever the office eventually becomes, “The desk is not going away, but the idea that you’re going to sit at your desk for eight hours, five days a week – for most people, that’s over,” said Buecher.

The pandemic, he believes, has given Salesforce a chance to “reevaluate our office layouts and do things differently, resetting expectations on what an office can be.” For example, designing campuses and offices that encourage more social interaction and ideation across teams, and catering to workers who may need quiet space for heads-down work. 

Like most companies, he thinks, Salesforce is still figuring it out, working with a wide range of internal partners and industry experts to understand workers’ needs and motivations. “We may not get it right at first, but we need to be fast and flexible, and come up with ideas that are easy to implement and interchangeable across locations.”

The “interchangeable” part is easier thanks to the consistent design (down to moldings, rugs, ceiling tiles, paint, and furniture) across every Salesforce office globally. Consider this: Salesforce’s design standards guide, Buecher said, is 2,500 pages long, versus the standard 200-page design guide for most large companies.

The desk is not going away, but the idea that you’re going to sit at your desk for eight hours, five days a week – for most people, that’s over.

Matthew Buecher, global real estate design leader at Salesforce

The ultimate goal, he said, is to reimagine the office by providing employees the flexibility to work the way they want while maintaining productivity, wellness, and driving new levels of collaboration and innovation. None of this is easy, even for a company like Salesforce where nearly 18% of the employee population worked remotely before the pandemic. 

“It’s hard to carve out the future when every day, the ground is moving beneath our feet,” said Buecher. “Until we start opening offices broadly, it will be hard to get a handle on it. However, we have started to open select offices in Asia Pacific, Europe, and Canada, leveraging Work.com to gather feedback from employees about the experience. At the same time I have regular calls with peers in the industry and we’re all tracking the same way, with the same questions. We don’t know what the future will hold, but we know it will be a lot different.” 

It’s impossible to overstate the tectonic shift in the way office workers are thinking about the workplace and the role it plays in their professional and personal lives. One thing is certain: the workplace will never be the same.

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