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The “Work-at-Home” Hit to Productivity

Received wisdom has been gravitating over recent years toward the belief that remote working has substantial benefits for both companies and their employees.* When people have a bit more flexibility to manage their lives – and reduce dreaded commutes – job satisfaction and productivity go up. And for certain types of work done by certain types of workers, that is probably right.


But it’s certainly not right all the time, as the current global office expulsion is demonstrating. Over the past two weeks, as part of my work, I’ve been talking to people around the world who almost exclusively were working at home. Some of them were loving it – they could indulge in the more introverted aspects of their personalities to get more done. But others were struggling.


For some of the strugglers, the problems are visceral – Home environments simply not set up to handle multiple generations simultaneously studying and working, or handling tasks that can’t be replicated over Zoom.


For others, the difficulty has been getting their head in the right place to work. Home for them is a place to switch off and enjoy distractions, which is obviously not useful for work. When I've been feeding back on personality assessments to knowledge workers, it’s clear a lot of people put on a game face to go to work. They have been socialized in their workplaces to act within certain behavioural limits, and are literally not the same person as the one who walks through the front door in the evening.

When working from home, therefore, they are not just physically in the wrong place, but also mentally. Offices are by no means devoid of distractions, but homes are for many people THE distraction they look forward to.

This struggle to maintain focus is reflected in data from multinationals in China, which went through the coronavirus lockdown before the rest of the world. There, 55 percent of companies in one survey said that productivity had declined as a result of the work-from-home requirements, compared with 5 percent who reported higher productivity (as shown in the chart).**


As an organisational psychologist, I wonder if my skills are still relevant amid the chaos. If I reframe my field as disorganisational psychology, I certainly have more to offer in terms of suggestions:

  • Shape the environment: Make sure the designated work space is where work happens, and nothing else. This doesn’t mean the space can’t be converted back at the end of the day, but it’s not a place to mix business and pleasure.

  • Develop new habits and routines: Do whatever it takes to transport your mind from homelife to worklife. Some people go so far as to put on work clothes and bid their loved ones goodbye before they retreat to their working space. No need to re-enact the commute, but find some way to make the transition so it's clear where the mental boundaries are, not just the physical ones. 

  • Strengthen the ability to focus, despite the distractions: Here is where practices such as mindfulness can help. Rather than being just a “wellbeing” balm, mindfulness meditation is really about enhancing your ability to decide what to pay attention to – the dog barking, or your work report; the pointless WhatsApp chat, or your company email (which is already distracting enough).

Foresight Psychology is now offering group sessions that help you do just that: harness your attention so you can get stuff done, no matter what is going on around you. This interactive course is designed for individuals who would like to make better decisions and more easily manage challenging situations. It is especially suitable for those going through a transition or who work remotely. 


To register for one of the upcoming sessions, visit the webpage.


*For examples, see:

Is It Time to Let Employees Work from Anywhere?

A New Study Reveals Why Working From Home Makes Employees More Productive

A 2-Year Stanford Study Shows the Astonishing Productivity Boost of Working From Home

**AmCham China Flash Survey Report on the Impact of COVID-19

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