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Remote workers say they're productive at home. Bosses don't agree

Are workers really as productive at home or are they just performing 'productivity theater'?
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer
Image: iStock/Drazen Zigic

A new survey by Microsoft has found that 87% of workers feel they're just as efficient at home as in the office, but the vast majority of bosses disagree. 

Some 85% of business leaders suspect their workers are shirking at home while only 12% of them have "full confidence" their employees are being productive, according to the results of Microsoft's survey of 20,000 people in 11 countries. 

As companies begin to entice or pull workers back to the office full-time or on a hybrid basis, Microsoft is spotlighting the emergence of "productivity paranoia" and says business leaders need to get over it because it may endanger the future of hybrid work.

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Microsoft has adopted hybrid at its campuses and has been gearing its Office apps, most notably Teams, to hybrid work. Yesterday it also announced new modules for its Viva employee-experience platform, which aims to help companies onboard and interact with employees at the office and remotely.      

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told BBC this week: "We have to get past what we describe as 'productivity paranoia', because all of the data we have that shows that 80% plus of the individual people feel they're very productive – except their management thinks that they're not productive. That means there is a real disconnect in terms of the expectations and what they feel."

Microsoft depicts productivity paranoia as a vicious circle. Businesses using employee-tracking technology undermine employee trust, which in turn can lead to "productivity theater", where workers knowingly join pointless video meetings and respond to emails at times that look good. 

A study by GitLab found remote workers on average spend 67 minutes on feigning productivity each day. 

Microsoft data suggests, in an average week, 42% of people on a video meeting are also sending emails. The figure excludes activities like reading email, working on non-meeting files, and browsing the web. 

Microsoft's take on productivity paranoia is "where leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings, and other activity metrics have increased."

Employee attitudes towards the purpose of the office have also changed. Microsoft found 73% of employees want a better reason to return than just the company demanding it. Most (about 85%) said they would want to go to the office to socialise with co-workers and rebuild team bonds. 

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While Microsoft, Google and Apple are implementing hybrid work, other companies such as Red Hat, Airbnb and Atlassian, are letting employees choose where to work from indefinitely. Red Hat's chief people officer Jennifer Dudeck says "the office is where we used to work" and is now looking at how to make coming to the office "enjoyable and fun" for staff. 

A recent survey by hiring platform Hired found 57.1% of tech employees are planning on looking for a new job in the next six months. Even more would leave if a pay rise was knocked back. This year, 61.7% of tech workers were employed in 'remote-first' firms. Over half the respondents said they'd immediately start looking for new work if their employer demanded a return to the office. 

Ryan Roslansky, head of Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, told BBC that 2% of Linked's 14 to 15 million job postings involved remote working before the pandemic. Today, 15% of them do, but that's down from 20% a few months ago. 

Microsoft found that 55% of employees think the best way to develop their skills is to change companies. However, 68% said they'd stay if they could easily move internally, while 76% said they'd stay if they could get more learning and development support. 

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