Remote work doesn’t lower productivity, can even boost resilience, study says

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions to work from their living room couches and kitchen counters over the last two years. Many aren’t exactly happy at the notion of returning to a physical office and daily commute. However, those in support of returning to offices say it’s much harder to work and concentrate at home. Now, researchers from Texas A&M University suggest that remote work doesn’t lower productivity and may even foster greater companywide resilience.

Study authors report allowing employees to work remotely during natural disasters or other events causing workplace displacement (like COVID-19) may lead to greater resilience, among both individual employees and the entire company. The research also indicates that remote work has no negative effect whatsoever on productivity.

Learning from Hurricane Harvey

These findings are based on data collected in the wake of Hurricane Harvey among 264 employees working for a large oil and gas company in Houston, Texas. Due to the hurricane, all workers had to work from home for quite some time.

Researchers assessed employee technology data from before, during, and after Hurricane Harvey. While it is true that workers spent less time on their computers in general during the hurricane, their actual “work behaviors” during the seven-month post-hurricane remote work period returned to pre-hurricane levels. Study authors say this makes a strong case that working remotely does not negatively impact workplace productivity.

“In the future, there will be a greater percentage of the workforce who is involved in some sort of office-style technology work activities,” says Mark Benden, director of Texas A&M’s Ergonomics Center, in a university release. “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.”

These findings are actually part of a larger project by the Ergonomics Center investigating information worker health and wellness. While such jobs may seem less strenuous than blue-collar work, information workers are still at risk of injuries like 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 explains. “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.”

Taking a break won’t break your rhythm

Study authors say their work can serve as a model to help keep employees healthy wherever they work. Moving forward, they’re keen on tracking the various ergonomic environments within employees’ home offices. By looking into that, study authors believe they can help employers prevent or at least mitigate a variety of health issues remote workers may encounter, such as depression, stress, or even drug abuse.

“The question was whether we could track people and rather than letting them stay in a bad place, a bad habit or bad behavior, could we give them a healthful nudge over the computer to remind them that it was time to take a walk or a break,” Benden adds. “We as humans are not very good at keeping track of time, especially when we’re in the zone. In order to keep us from physically hurting our bodies, we need to have nudges and reminders, which people respond to, and which work really well.”

Importantly, researchers stress that no worker in any field should be apprehensive about taking a break. Giving yourself a rest won’t hurt your productivity or overall work quality.

“The people who took the recommended breaks were more productive overall. They got more done,” the researcher concludes. “We need to learn this about people, we need to teach people about it, and then we need to help people actually do it.”

The study is published in the journal Work.

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