A study comparing productivity before, during and after an extended stint of remote work suggests information worker productivity isn't negatively impacted by remote working.
Ergonomics researchers at Texas A&M University School of Public Health conducted the study before the pandemic made remote work the norm from March 2020. They looked at 265 employees from a Houston-based oil and gas company during Hurricane Harvey, which required these employees to work remotely for a month back in August 2017 due to floods.
The research – which looked at data about employee technology use before, during and after the disaster – found that employee and company resiliency "may be enhanced" through remote work during natural disasters and other events that cause workplace displacement.
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"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 the school's Ergonomics Center and one of the authors of the study.
"Almost all of the study's employees were right back up to the same level of output as they were doing before Hurricane Harvey. This is a huge message right now for employers because we're having national debates about whether or not employees should be able to work remotely or in a hybrid schedule."
Indeed, American tech giants, other firms and the federal government are carving out return-to-office policies largely around the idea of hybrid work, mostly where staff work three days in the office and two days from home.
Microsoft re-opened its campuses in February, while Apple and Google commenced hybrid work policies in April. To attract and retain talent, Airbnb last month announced employees can work remotely forever, and has scrapped location-based salary cuts for staff moving to cheaper regions in the US. Twitter early on let staff choose to work from home indefinitely but reopened its headquarters in March.
US president Joe Biden in March urged American businesses to return to the office and stated the "vast majority of federal workers will once again work 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, the debate over hybrid work or a full return to the office will roll on amid a tight US labor market and high inflation.
Microsoft's 2022 Work Trend Index survey found half of all business leaders have plans for a full in-person return to the office in 2022, while most employees seem to prefer hybrid or remote.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month that 7.7% of employed Americans in April had the choice to work remotely, but this was down from 10% in March and 15% in January.
The key differences between the Texas study and the pandemic was that the hurricane disaster was localized and the corporate office was only fully shut for one month.
The energy firm in the study was forced to close its corporate office for seven months. It was closed fully for one month and then gradually reopened after September 24, 2017, with a full return to the office happening on April 1, 2018. The researchers tracked time spent with "active computer engagement", such as keyboard and mouse use, as well as words typed per active hour, and typos (errors) per word typed.
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The study's findings suggested a short-term negative impact to productivity immediately after the disaster began, with productivity quickly returning to pre-disaster levels after alternative remote work arrangements were in place.
"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.
"While the total daily hours increased during the displacement period, the number of active hours immediately declined in response to the hurricane and steadily increased during the displacement period. No other changes in computer performance were observed."
This study is part of a large effort by the Ergonomics Center that is looking at the health of information workers, who can be prone to injury such as 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 – then you're less likely to develop a problem from doing your office work."
The next phase of the study will explore the darker side of extended remote working related to the ergonomic environment in employees' home offices. The research team reckons this data will help companies address remote employee health issues, including stress, depression and substance abuse.