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Does Remote Work Impact Productivity? Here's What Leaders Think

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Yes, remote work may hits productivity. Image: REUTERS

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Future of Work

This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit
  • Employers expect to move about 44% of workers to work from home during the pandemic, according to the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2020.
  • But 78% of business leaders think that working from home or remote work will have a negative impact on productivity.
  • Those working from home face mental health and well-being challenges, including childcare pressures and digital connectivity.

On average, 44% of workers could work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey of Chief Human Resource Officers for the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report.

In May 2020, 42% of Americans aged 20-64 earning more than $20,000 were working from home full-time, according to a Stanford University survey – which equates to more than two-thirds of US economic activity. That’s compared to just 2% working full-time from home before the pandemic.

There are huge disparities between countries and sectors, the Future of Jobs Report found. Around 60% of workers in high-income countries such as the US and Switzerland are unable to fully work from home. This figure rises to more than 80-90% for economies such as Egypt and Bangladesh - mostly due to digital connectivity and the sectors common to those economies.

remote-work-imapct-due-to-covid

Those who are able to work remotely are more likely to keep their jobs than displaced workers in the sectors most impacted by the pandemic, including retail, travel and tourism, and hospitality.

But most employers are uncertain how home-working and hybrid working (coming into the office a few days a week) will pan out in the long term, according to the Future of Jobs Report.

Remote Work Impact on productivity

The majority of business leaders surveyed (78%) expect some negative impact of the current way of working on productivity, with 22% expecting a strong negative impact and only 15% believing that it will have no impact or a positive impact on productivity.

Three likely reasons for this scepticism were identified in the report:

1. The switch to remote working is occurring during a period of additional stress caused by the risks associated with the COVID-19 virus.

2. Those looking after children are faced with additional pressures – needing to take on more unpaid care work due to changeable school and nursery arrangements.

3. Newly remote-working companies are still establishing a sense of community and ensuring a flow of communication in the post-lockdown world of work.

Supporting mental health at home

Mental health is a major factor impacting productivity for remote work. The report says: “Remote workers are faced with potential well-being and mental health challenges due to extensive changes to working practices as well as new areas of exclusion such as access to digital connectivity, living circumstances and the additional care responsibilities faced by parents or those looking after elderly relatives.”

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A longitudinal study in the UK found levels of stress, anxiety and depression were all higher than expected between March and April 2020, when the country first went into lockdown. Mental distress was 8.1% higher in April 2020 than it was between 2017 and 2019.

Adults living with children were more likely to report worse mental health than adults living without children, two studies showed.

Business leaders are prioritizing the mental health of employees. The Future of Jobs Report found ensuring employee well-being was among the key measures being undertaken by leaders looking to effectively shift to remote work.

In particular, more than a third (34%) of leaders said they were taking steps to create a sense of community among employees online; they were also looking to tackle the well-being challenges posed by the shift to remote working.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Forum InstitutionalJobs and the Future of WorkHealth and Healthcare Systems
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Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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