Enterprises are still debating whether nine months of enforced all-remote work has made organizations more or less productive. It’s not an academic question; how an enterprise answers the question will shape its longer-term return-to-office plan, which will translate into real dollars. If you believe remote work is working for your enterprise, you’ll likely scale back on office space and expand remote work opportunities. If you’re unconvinced, you’ll likely be making investments in new office technologies and design concepts that depart from the reigning philosophies and practices pre-COVID.
Eric Garton and Michael Mankins of Bain & Company write that the lockdowns likely accentuated the existing collaborative qualities of most enterprises. Companies with a strong collaborative culture got even better during the lockdowns: “We estimate that the best organizations have seen productive time increase by 5% or more,” they write.
In contrast, companies with weaker collaborative cultures — and that’s the majority, according to the authors — tended to give in to their worst instincts, holding more meetings attended by more employees, generally to little benefit. “Poor collaboration and inefficient work practices have reduced productive time by 2% to 3% for most organizations,” Garton and Mankins conclude.
With vaccinations now underway, many of us are eagerly anticipating an ever-brightening picture over the course of 2021. That means that, while 1Q may remain grim and pretty locked down, enterprises will want to use this time to prepare for an improving environment where returning to the office is increasingly realistic. That in turn suggests that enterprises should look at analyses like Garton’s and Mankins’ and think about how the baseline conclusion applies to their own collaborative cultures.
If remote work hampered productivity in your enterprise, there seems to be little reason for optimism that this will somehow change if you implement permanent work-from-home policies. Instead, you’ll be locking in a new, worse collaborative culture. If employees nevertheless want to keep working from home because they like it, management will have to find a way to reconcile these two contradictory forces. Conversely, high-performing organizations that boosted productivity in 2020 have the space to be more creative as they plan for the future.
The likely overall effect is reflected in the HBR article’s title, which asserts that the remote work experiment, “is widening a corporate productivity gap.”
The moral of the story seems to be that the lockdown experience may have been a missed opportunity for many enterprises to create a more flexible, modern collaborative culture. These enterprises may now need to start from square one in building that collaborative culture. But they do still need to start.