A new study from the University of Birmingham has found that managers developed a more positive outlook on the benefits of remote and flexible working since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The research surveyed 597 managers and found that 51.8% of them agreed that working from home improves employee concentration, 59.5% agreed that it increases productivity, and 62.8% agreed that it increases motivation. Furthermore, an even larger proportion of managers, 76.5% believe that flexible working generally increases productivity. Importantly, the study also found that line managers were more likely to see flexible working as a performance-enhancing tool (71.2%) than senior management (65.6%). This highlights the importance of educating senior management on the benefits of flexible working and the positive impact it can have on employee performance.
Now, managers need to learn how to maximize hybrid work productivity by determining what employees can most productively work on at home, and what to focus on when they come to the office. Given that about three-quarters of all U.S. companies are in the process of adopting a hybrid work model, optimizing this mix of employee activities is critical both for the success of individual companies and the U.S. economy as a whole. So what are the best practices in determining what tasks hybrid workers should work on from home?
Some might say it’s simple: just let the rank-and-file employees and their immediate supervisors figure it out for themselves. However, after helping 21 organizations figure out successful hybrid work arrangements and writing a best-selling book about this topic, my experience shows that employees often fail to maximize their productivity.
Related: Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff Is Right. New Employees Are Less Productive in a Hybrid Work Setting — But Why?
It’s not because they’re lazy or deliberately inefficient: it’s just that they never learned how to do hybrid work effectively, and don’t know what they don’t know. Without guidance and professional development in this area, lower-level supervisors and middle managers in particular end up shoehorning traditional office-centric methods of working into hybrid settings. The result is lower productivity, engagement and morale, harming both company bottom lines and employee wellbeing and career success.
The worst part of coming to the office
One key filter to determine what to do where: to maximize productivity, hybrid work models have to minimize commuting time for employees. Coming to the office needs to be for a specific purpose that outweighs the significant costs — in time, money and stress — involved in the commute.
A survey by Hubble asked what respondents liked about working from home — 79% of respondents named the lack of commute, making it the most popular response by far. According to a recent survey by Zebra, 35% of Americans would be willing to take a pay cut in exchange for a shorter commute. Of those who would take a pay cut, 89% would sacrifice up to 20% of their salary.
Americans waste a lot of time commuting. The U.S. Census Data from 2019 shows that about 10% of Americans commuted over an hour each way, mainly those living in dense urban areas. On average, Americans commute a half hour each way.
Moreover, commuting to work costs a lot of money. According to a Flexjobs analysis, employees can save up to $12,000 per year by working full-time remotely. This includes savings on transportation expenses like gas, car maintenance and parking, as well as the cost of buying professional clothing and eating out at expensive restaurants. While there may be some additional costs associated with working from home, such as increased utility bills and the cost of cooking at home, these expenses are typically much smaller than the costs of commuting to an office.
Peer-reviewed research found that longer commute times correlate with lower job satisfaction, increased strain and poorer mental health. And happy workers are productive workers, as found by economists at the University of Warwick. They did experiments to discover that a sense of happiness made people around 12% more productive. Similarly, a study run by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School at BT, a British telecommunications firm, found very similar results: happy workers were 13% more productive.
In addition to the boost in productivity coming from happier workers who avoid a commute, those working from home actually work more hours. Chicago University research discovered that employees working from home devote about a third of the time saved from not commuting to their primary jobs.
What kind of work should hybrid employees do at home to boost hybrid work productivity?
The large majority of the work that most employees do is more effectively done from home anyway, even if the commute wasn’t an issue. For instance, much of the work done by individual employees involves focused tasks that they do by themselves. Research shows that workers are more focused while working at home, without the distractions of the office.
Another category of work that takes up a great deal of time for employees is asynchronous collaboration and communication. That might involve sending emails, editing a Google Doc or Mural board, or doing virtual asynchronous brainstorming. A McKinsey analysis shows that only email takes up an average of 28% of work time for knowledge workers. There’s no reason to commute to the office just to read and send emails.
A third major activity best done from home is virtual meetings. In a survey by the collaboration software company Slack, employees report spending two hours each day in meetings. Stuart Templeton, the head of Slack in the U.K., said that employers risked turning their offices into “productivity killers” by having their staff come in just to do video calls: according to him, “making a two-hour commute to sit on video calls is a terrible use of the office.”
Of course, for those workers who don’t have a comfortable and quiet home office, it’s important for employers to provide an alternative workplace for these three tasks, either in an employer-owned office or a coworking space. Still, the large majority of employees prefer to work on such tasks at home.
The commute undermines employee happiness, making them less productive. Moreover, employees willingly spend a substantial part of the time saved from the commute by working on their primary job. Thus, to maximize hybrid employee productivity, any office-based activities must outweigh the substantial burden of commuting. In addition, the large majority of activities that hybrid employees do are better done at home anyway, such as focused individual tasks, asynchronous communication and video meetings. That means most hybrid employees should spend the substantial majority of their time working remotely.
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