Sustaining productivity virtually
strategy+business|Winter 2020
Maintaining productivity levels among remote employees is an enduring challenge. Here are five ways to help businesses and employees thrive while people work at home.
Nele Van Buggenhout, Soraya Murat, and Tom de Sousa

How was lockdown for your teams? Are they feeling stressed and isolated? Or has working from home turned out to be a productive, com-mute-free, work-in-comfy-clothes revelation? One thing seems certain: This global, flexible-working experiment has changed our professional routines, probably for good. In PwC’s Remote Work Survey, conducted in June, 39 percent of U.S. executives said most of their office employees were working remotely at least one day a week before the pandemic. But during the COVID-19 crisis, almost everyone who could work exclusively from home did so.

Separate research conducted at the start of the lockdown found that three-quarters of executives judged the forced experiment a success, contrary to the expectations of many. Data collected at the beginning of the lockdown and through the more recent opening-up phase of the pandemic shows that productivity, despite an initial drop, soon improved during lockdown and got back on track (see chart on page 43). This finding is backed up by our spring surveys of chief financial officers; in March, 63 percent of business leaders were concerned that remote working would result in lost productivity, but by June, this number had fallen to just 26 percent.

The bottom-line results show steady or increased productivity — that’s the solid line in the chart showing an uptick — which on first reading looks like good news, but those results hide a potential problem that appears when you look harder at the data. There is greater variation around mean performance in the weeks after lockdown than before: The blue bands start widening as lockdowns are enforced. This suggests that productivity has been propped up by a cohort of superachievers (around one-third of the total sample), which has disguised a fall in productivity among the rest.

These superachievers have worked harder and longer than before in the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic — perhaps because they have benefited from fewer distractions, or have fed off the adrenaline of the crisis. The rest of the employees found things more difficult; remote working doesn’t suit everyone, for practical or emotional reasons or a combination of the two. This breeds stress and fatigue, which present risks to engagement, performance, and mental health. “I’m feeling Zoomed out” is a familiar lament. The challenge for leaders is to find ways to tackle performance because they can’t rely on superachievers to keep making up the shortfall for much longer.

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