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Remote Work Has No Negative Impact on Productivity

Annie Erling Gofus - May 16 2022
Published in: Global Workforce

A study conducted by Texas A&M University found that remote work does not have a negative impact on organizations' productivity.

Remote working, particularly during a crisis, may significantly boost worker productivity and company resilience. Research conducted on information workers' productivity before, during, and after long periods of remote work indicates that remote work has little impact.

Before the pandemic, ergonomics experts at Texas A&M University School of Public Health conducted a study to see whether working from home increased employees' chances of surviving. During Hurricane Harvey, which struck in August 2017 and submerged the city in water for a month, they interviewed 265 workers from an oil and gas firm based in Houston.

The researchers looked at employee technology data before, during, and after Hurricane Harvey. According to their research, employees' work behaviors during the seven-month period of working remotely were back to normal pre-hurricane levels. This conclusion suggests that remote work does not have a negative impact on organizations' productivity.

This study, published in IOS Press in February, shines a light on information workers who have grown accustomed to and enthusiastic about working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"In the future, there will be a greater percentage of the workforce [which] is involved in some sort of office-style technology work activities," said Mark Benden, who is director of Texas A&M University’s Ergonomics Center.

Employees returned to the same output level as before Hurricane Harvey, with only a few exceptions. This is a huge message for businesses because we're having national debates about whether employees should be allowed to work remotely or on a blended schedule.

Indeed, American tech enterprises, other organizations, and the federal government are developing return-to-office systems in response to concerns over hybrid work, especially where staff work three days in the workplace and two days from home. 

Apple and Google began offering hybrid work practices in April, while Microsoft re-opened its campuses in February. Airbnb announced last month that employees may work remotely indefinitely and has discontinued location-based pay cuts for workers relocating to less expensive areas in the US. Staff was able to choose to work from home permanently on Twitter in the early days, but it reopened its headquarters in March. 

In March, US President Joe Biden urged businesses to return to the office and said that the vast majority of federal workers would once again be working in person. The US government employs 2.2 million civilians and 2.1 million military personnel, according to the Office of Personnel Management and the Defense Department

However, in the tight US labor market and high inflation, the debate over hybrid work or a full return to the office will continue.

According to Microsoft's 2022 Work Trend Index study, half of all company leaders plan for a full in-person return to the workplace in 2022, while most employees want hybrid or remote. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.7% of those working in April had the option to work remotely, down from 10% in March and 15% in January.     

The most significant distinctions between the Texas research and the pandemic are that the hurricane calamity was limited in scope and only closed the corporate headquarters for a single month.

For seven months, the energy firm in the study was unable to operate its corporate office. It was totally closed for a month, then gradually reopened on September 24, 2017, with the entire office reopening on April 1, 2018. The researchers tracked the amounts of time spent on "active computer engagement," such as keyboard and mouse usage, words typed per active hour, and typos (errors) per word typed.

According to the study's findings, productivity decreased immediately after the calamity began. After other remote work arrangements were implemented, productivity quickly bounced back to pre-disaster levels.  

"Displacement from the workplace due to Hurricane Harvey had a significant but temporary impact on workplace computer output of employees at a large commercial office space in Houston, TX, USA," the researchers noted. 

The total number of hours worked each day increased during the displacement period. However, the number of hours worked immediately decreased after the hurricane and gradually increased during the displacement period. No other changes in computer performance were observed.

This research is part of a larger project by the Ergonomics Center to study the health of information workers who are frequently afflicted with carpal tunnel syndrome. 

"The research says that if you work a certain way at a certain pace over a certain duration, you're more likely to become injured from that work," Benden said. "But if you work a little less or a little less often or break up the duration or have certain other character traits – like posture –you're less likely to develop a problem from doing your office work."

The Texas A&M researchers think this data can encourage employees to adopt healthy behaviors, such as exercise, and influence corporate rules. They'll also be looking at the employees' home workspaces' ergonomic environment. The darker aspects of extended remote working in relation to the employees' home office ergonomics are next on the agenda during the study's second phase.

According to the study's researchers, the difficulties of remote work may be exacerbated by a lack of engagement. This data will assist businesses in addressing remote employee health issues, including stress, sadness, and substance abuse, they believe.