Are remote workers more productive? That’s the wrong question.

Plenty of workers prefer flexibility, regardless of what the research says.

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Credit: Alexandra Francis

Ten years ago, I got my first non-academic job as a market researcher and writer. The commute was only about 30 minutes in each direction, but parking was expensive and public transportation wasn’t an option. I rarely had meetings; I communicated with my manager and my colleagues—all seated in the same open-plan office space—almost exclusively via email and chat.

After several months of noise-canceling headphones, I asked my manager if I could work from home sometimes. From a 2023 perspective, he reacted as if I’d made a ridiculous request, like reducing my working hours to 15 minutes every other day or keeping a baby tiger under my desk. He eventually agreed to a trial period, but the solution that seemed obvious to me was a hard sell for him.

A decade of technological progress and one pandemic later, there’s much less reflexive resistance to the idea of working remotely. But over the last year or so, especially after the official end of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency in the United States, some of that hostility toward working from home (we’re lazy! we wear pajamas!) has returned. Headlines, blogs, internal message boards, and LinkedIn feeds are dense with discussion about whether we should all go back to the office, continue working remotely, or navigate some kind of middle ground.

We spent the last few months consuming the news, diving into the research, and chatting with colleagues to bring you some perspective on the return-to-office (RTO) conversation and to get a handle on the relationship between developer happiness, productivity, and remote work. We’ll also touch on the downstream effects of RTO mandates on diversity, recruitment and retention, employee satisfaction, and overall performance.

Workers don’t want to be forced back to the office

Flexibility is a high priority for developers and other knowledge workers. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that RTO mandates are not popular with employees, some of whom are simply quitting in response.

Our own annual survey of professional developers found, for the third year in a row, that flexibility is the most important reason why developers stay in a job (or look for a new one). Another recent survey found that one in three developers would quit if they were no longer allowed to work from home.

And it’s not just developers. Nearly half of employees in one survey said they would quit if their employer ordered them back to the office full-time, and most workers would ditch an office-only job for a remote job even if it meant a pay cut, according to another survey of more than 8,400 US employees. That survey found that 17% of workers said they would give up 20% of their paycheck to work remotely, while 10% would surrender more than 20%. This is true despite the cost of living crisis.

Most CEOs want workers to return to the office

CEOs, statistically speaking, are not on the same page as their employees. A KPMG study of more than 1,300 global CEOs found that 64% believe that everybody will be back to working from the office by 2026. Plus, 87% of CEOs said they were more likely to lavish “favorable assignments, raises, or promotions” on employees who came into the office than on those who worked remotely.

There’s a significant disconnect between what organizations and CEOs see as the benefits of working onsite and the benefits employees actually report receiving. Unsurprisingly, there’s a further disconnect between how men and women access those benefits. McKinsey and Company’s 2023 Women in the Workplace report found that “while 77 percent of companies believe a strong organizational culture is a key benefit of on-site work, most employees disagree: only 39 percent of men and 34 percent of women who work on-site say a key benefit is feeling more connected to their organization’s culture. On top of this, men are more likely to benefit from working on-site.”

The research isn’t as simple as you might think

Among the first questions that comes up in any conversation about remote work is whether people are more or less productive working from home. One problem with this question is that “productivity” is obviously not a straightforward metric. Does it mean lines of code? Mean change lead time? The number of hours you log at the office?

Nor do all productivity studies use the same methodology. Some involve “employee time use captured by monitoring applications on work devices”, while others simply asked people how productive they thought they were when working remotely.

And of course, the choice is not necessarily (or even usually) between “work full-time from the office” and “work full-time from home.” Many people have hybrid schedules, where they work from the office on some days and remotely on others.

Given these ambiguities of meaning and methodology, it’s not a surprise that many studies on remote and/or hybrid work have confusing or apparently contradictory findings. For example, a Stanford study found that fully remote work was associated with a 10% drop in productivity, but that hybrid working “appears to have no impact on productivity.” The authors note, however, that their study doesn’t take into account the money companies save with a remote-first approach, from lack of real estate costs to global hiring. The study authors also note that hybrid schedules improve recruitment and retention—because, again, flexibility is very important to people.

A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that remote workers are less productive, but as one expert who unpacked its shortcomings shows, also fails to address factors like the cost of real estate, the impact of RTO mandates on retention and recruitment, and a range of accessibility and diversity concerns.

Finally, plenty of those urging RTO, including the head of the world’s largest commercial landlord, have a vested interest in people returning to commercial real estate properties and patronizing the businesses on which those properties depend. They have a financial stake in preserving white-collar business districts even when the data doesn’t support the contention that daily in-person interaction is necessary to produce innovative, creative, and meaningful work.

What’s missing from the conversation?

It’s worth asking why, in most conversations about remote work, we ask about productivity first, instead of leading with accessibility, diversity, or happiness. Productivity is not necessarily a straightforward or revealing metric, and a seemingly squishy concept like happiness can have a quantifiable impact on a company’s performance. Nor are diversity and accessibility concerns mere background noise in the RTO conversation; they are important points to consider.

People are happier working from home

A recent study reported in Forbes found that “workers who worked from home 100% of the time were 20% happier on average than those who didn’t have the ability to work from home.” That study also found “a strong correlation between work happiness and overall happiness.” Another study found that “people who have the opportunity to work remotely at least monthly are 24% more likely to feel happy and productive in their roles.”

Happiness at work isn’t a nice-to-have with no relationship to organizational performance. On the contrary, business psychologist Dr. Camille Preston argues that promoting employee happiness benefits everyone, with happy employees working more productively and generating more sales. She’s hardly alone. “Happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%,” writes Sean Achor, author of the book The Happiness Advantage.

RTO mandates are bad for diversity

At Stack Overflow, we take it as a given that diversity, equity, and inclusion are important. Earlier this year, we wrote that the rounds of tech layoffs in 2022 and 2023 were a significant blow to diversity in tech, disproportionately affecting women and people of color. The same systemic inequities are in play when it comes to how RTO mandates affect diversity in tech—for instance, the above-mentioned McKinsey and Company report found that women reap fewer benefits from working on-site than men do.

Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor, told The Washington Post that by enforcing rigid RTO mandates, “you’re risking your top performers and diversity. It just doesn’t make economic sense.” Choudhury also emphasized that women are resigning at higher rates in response to RTO mandates than men are. This fact is not only confirmed by the research but frankly intuitive, considering the gender wage gap in the United States and the reality that women shoulder more household work, particularly childcare, than their male partners even when both work full-time.

People with disabilities and advocacy groups have also warned that RTO mandates disproportionately hurt workers with disabilities, including neurodivergent people. The option to work remotely makes work more accessible to a wider range of people, and when employers remove the option without regard for how it affects individuals, they are rendering their workplaces less accessible and less diverse. (Not to mention, less attractive to prospective employees.)

Our view

Stack Overflow has embraced a remote-first philosophy from the beginning. We wrote about why enabling remote work was important to us and how we made it happen way back in 2017. In March 2020, with so many people adjusting to remote work for the first time, we shared our remote employees’ best advice for working from home. It’s baked into our culture, and the well-honed async communication, respect for work-life balance, and emphasis on results over hours-spent-at-desk attracted many of our employees, including yours truly.

At organizations where not all employees work remotely, leadership tends to “systematically [undervalue] the productivity of hybrid and remote workers,” according to research by Nick Bloom, a preeminent scholar of remote and hybrid work. Bloom’s findings suggest that many in-office managers haven’t been properly trained to manage remote employees. According to an article in Fortune discussing Bloom’s research, “manager training is the biggest obstacle to effective hybrid work performance for organizations–and a major driver of the continual ratcheting up of days in the office.”

Perhaps the problem is less about employees wearing pajama pants and more about managers struggling to apply an outdated framework to how people actually want to live and work in 2023.

Instead of unilaterally ordering employees back to the office, organizations might take this opportunity to figure out how to make remote work work for them. If our experience is anything to go by, an openness to remote or hybrid work is how you attract the best talent and earn a reputation as a stellar place to work.

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