There’s no doubt you have a belief about whether working in an office makes your team more or less productive. But until the coronavirus hit, it was very unlikely that you had data. Even if your employees were able to work from home periodically, the results were muddled. Most of their colleagues were still in the office, for one. Not to mention that work-from-home days probably lined up directly with laundry days.
COVID-19 presented the world with a rare chance for a natural experiment. All of the sudden, all at once, all of us were at home — and kept there long enough to gather real statistics on working from home versus working at an office.
The quarantine is, hopefully, the only time we’ll have access to data like this. And though it’s flawed — childcare, medical concerns, financial worries and anxiety all take a high toll on what people can get done in a day — it can still tell us something. If you push for a return to the office without looking at the data it’s created, you’re missing an opportunity to pick the best path forward for your business.
Testing the value of working in an office
It’s easy, when the circumstances are bad, to focus on a return to “normal.” No one wanted a global pandemic, and everyone is eager for it to be over. “Over” doesn’t have to mean “the same” though. It could mean better, smarter and more efficient.
There are thousands of things to learn about your business during a period of extreme stress. You learn how adaptable and resilient your team is, how volatile your business is, how interdependent it is on other factors. All of those are actionable, valuable insights — you just have to collect it.
Steps to assess employee productivity in the office
There’s no shortage of studies on how to work in an office and maximize productivity. But those studies don’t analyze your business and your people to tell you exactly what works best for you.
The general data is great when it’s all you have. Now, though, you can dig into the specifics of your company, and how different roles and personality types are doing during remote work. Your introverts, for example, may be performing much better without the stresses of small talk. Ditto the roles that require deep and uninterrupted focus — writing, data analysis, development — people who now have more control over their environment. You will also no doubt find people in every category who are desperate to get back to working in the office.
Multiple truths aren’t a sign that something’s wrong. It’s proof that you finally have a full picture. As you consider it, keep three things in mind.
1. The output — what’s getting done?
The most obvious place to start, if not always the easiest: Assess what work is getting done. This will be different based on the business you’re in, but whatever you look at, don’t let it be sales. The economy is still spinning and everyone is looking at artificially inflated or, more likely, deflated sales. Even if you have data from prior financial crises, trying to pin your team’s effectiveness on sales won’t be fair.
Instead, consider what’s within employee control. Look to production figures, processing rates, client satisfaction scores, whatever you may have to get a sense of how your people are operating, even if the market isn’t cooperating.
2. The input — how much effort is it taking?
When you have a sense of the output, consider its cost. You can manage people working less and getting the same amount done, but it’s another thing entirely to have people working harder with no results.
If input is going up without a measurable bump in output, it could be a sign of costly errors or other inefficiencies. People doubling back to fix work doesn’t do you any good. And even if productivity is up, employee burnout is a real concern. Employees can work around the clock for a short period of time and with a clear goal, but they can’t do it forever.
3. The faults — what’s missing from the data?
You can’t account for the things that don’t happen because people are working remotely. Big innovations tend to spin out of chance encounters. Those hallway conversations could be a drain on productivity, or they could be the thing that takes your business forward 10 years.
You also can’t account for what you can’t see. A pandemic is not a normal time — at a minimum, your employees are dealing with new stressors while trying to get the same work done. Many of them are managing children, sick relatives and/or financial stress at the same time. If they’re able to keep output and input even under quarantine, it’s worth thinking about what they could do in normal circumstances with full resources.
Ask employees: Do they want office or remote jobs?
Happiness is another one of those intangibles, but fortunately it’s something employees can self-assess. While managing transitions during this unprecedented time, regular surveys will bubble up employee frustrations about working from home, as well as reveal who’s enjoying it. Even if you can’t create a custom work-plan for each employee based on their preferences, you can learn which aspects of the office to emphasize and which to play down. And you’ll learn some valuable lessons about how your employees work best.
Calculate the actual costs of working in an office environment
Productivity and happiness will be your two biggest concerns, but they don’t happen in a vacuum. While your offices are sitting largely idle, do the math on what you’re saving. Start with the basics, like rent and utilities, and then move to the less obvious expenses. Plant care, catering, coffee, all of it adds up over time.
That’s not to say a virtual office is free — far from it. If your office has any specialized equipment, you have to determine how each person can be given access at home, which may mean lots of repeat buying. You also need to consider how you’ll compensate employees for providing the essential services, like internet, electricity and space, that the office used to cover.
Tally the costs versus benefits of working in an office environment
The most important part of all of this is using your newly available data to take action. Maybe you don’t have the time, resources or, frankly, business model to get a complete picture of how productivity has changed. Maybe there’s no direct way to track how much your employees are working. Even still, there’s valuable data to be had.
Asking employees directly how satisfied they are will reveal some insight into the other two questions. No one is satisfied when they’re working all the time or when they’re getting nothing done. Doubly so if both things are happening at once. On top of that, asking into satisfaction will tell you a lot about your people and how your systems can better serve them. Whether that’s minor tweaks in the office or a total overhaul of your work-from-home policy, you can come out of this more efficient, and with happier employees.