Market Insight

The new productivity paradox and the return to the office

With government advice on working from home due to change on the 19 July, the debate over whether businesses should return to the office, has been reignited.
July 8, 2021
With government advice on working from home due to change on the 19 July, the debate over whether businesses should return to the office, has been reignited.

Companies from Apple to Zoom have been quick to issue updates on their expectations of their employees, as they seek a widespread return to the office.

Meanwhile employees and unions have been putting forward their thoughts in relation to flexible working, productivity and even the potential for the creation of a new class divide resulting from more people working from home.

Of course, the point about increased productivity whilst working from home, has been made time and again throughout the pandemic. I have read or heard the phrases ‘I am far more productive at home’; ‘I have saved time on my commute’; ‘I can concentrate more’ countless times.

Certainly, for some, it has saved commuting time which has resulted in working more hours, thereby increasing productivity by some 47%. Working from home has enabled some to concentrate more, meanwhile for others, it has reduced unproductive working by 10%.

However, this has not come without a cost, as research confirms that workforces have worked up to one day more a week than they did pre-pandemic.

This is the new productivity paradox.

Yes, people and the companies they work for, may have experienced an increase in productivity whilst working from home throughout the pandemic. But at what cost?

With people working on average an extra day a week – either from time regained from the commute, or because of blurred lines between work and home life which have extended the working day – the benefits of productivity born out of the pandemic, come with significant risk. That of burnout.

When reading the myriad of articles and opinions on productivity and working from home, the pronoun ‘I’ really starts to stand out. In all honesty, this somewhat misses the point.

If you look at the dictionary definition of ‘company’ it is either defined as ‘a commercial business’ or more importantly, as ‘the fact or condition of being with another or others, especially in a way that provides friendship and enjoyment.’

For companies that value their culture and the essence of collaboration and communication, the narrative needs to move away from ‘I’, to ask questions around ‘we’. The same concept is true whether you are a limited company with employees, or a sole trader, because for the latter, their clients are, in most cases, an extension of their business.

Whilst individuals performing certain tasks may be more productive at home, the question we need to be asking is ‘what is the effect of home working on our people and the productivity of the company?’

According to HBR, well-functioning innovative companies with collaborative cultures, need a diverse array of contributors, enabling them to seek help from others, for whom giving help may not be in their job description.

Working from home may be more productive in the short term, but what about its longer term effects?

That inability to share chat to colleagues in the same way, and share ideas, will stifle innovation and erode culture.

And that’s exactly why companies like Google are exploring a blend of home and office working, not to mention ensuring that their cafeteria queues aren’t too short, as Dan Cobley, MD of Google UK and Ireland, explains:

“We specifically manage queues in our restaurant not to be too short — because we know people will chat while they’re waiting. Chats become ideas and ideas become projects.”

So, as businesses and their employees think about what the future of the workplace looks like for them, let’s not forget the productivity paradox.

Whilst people may, in the short term, be more productive when working from home, this brings with it the potential for risk in the longer term.

Erosion of company culture, a lack of collaboration and the resulting effects on innovation, frustrated communication, lack of social interaction.

Yes, some companies have enjoyed better productivity over the last 18 months, but without a blend of working, or a full return to the office, long term productivity is at risk.

As restrictions fall away this July, businesses need to think about their people in the whole, and establish a workplace strategy which offers flexibility, as well as place to return to for a ‘rest’ from home working – which will ensure that the company’s productivity can remain over the longer term.

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