I have been reading my fair share of articles which allegedly report on some finding or insight provided by science, or rather research, regarding management styles, remote working, hierarchy, etc. The problem that I see is that journalists and experts alike tend to summarize and then syndicate some cherry-picked items which are likely of little to no relevance to your team or organization. This may be old news to you. “Don’t be naive.”, you may think.

Here is one classic example to illustrate my point.

Breaking: Remote Workers Are 13 Percent More Productive!

From business.com, “How to Increase the Productivity of Remote Workers”:

 A two-year study from Stanford revealed that remote workers are generally more productive than their office-dwelling counterparts. The remote workers in the study were 13% more productive, took fewer days off and were more likely to work their full shift every day.

First, the link “study from Standford” does not link to the study, but to another article titled “Why Working From Home Is a ‘Future-looking Technology’”, which highlights a quote from the author, Nicholas Bloom, saying:

 We found massive, massive improvement in performance — a 13% improvement in performance from people working at home.

So far, so good. It appears that first article can more or less say that remote workers are “generally more productive”. And doesn’t that sound great?

By the way, this study in questions by Nicholas Bloom is a good one, I think, and his TED talk includes all the necessary disclaimers and explanations about the context and methodology used.

If we read the actual study, we find more, and more specific information about that productivity increase as well as the setup:

 Call center employees who volunteered to WFH were randomly assigned either to work from home or in the office for nine months. Home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter and more convenient working environment).

A few things of note:

  1. “Home working”, or working from home (WFH), is not the same as remote working.
  2. The workers in this case were call center employees.
  3. 9 % of that 13 % productivity increase is attributed to working more minutes per shift.

Why does that matter? I think most people do interpret “remote working” as being able to work from anywhere. And while Wikipedia says it is all one form or another of telecommuting, I would subjectively disagree, and I suspect many others more familiar with how the terms are being used, would too.

If you care to read a bit into the study, these call center employees were also not anywhere close to “fully remote”, but instead were asked if they would be interested in “working from home four days a week, with the fifth day in the office.” To me that is indeed partially working from home, but may have little resemblance of remote working with a distributed team, potentially across time zones.

The second point I want to emphasize is that these people were working as call center agents. They likely use a computer to pick up incoming calls and access their reference material, such as FAQs. That is totally fine, but it is the kind of job that requires little to no coordination or communication with a team. One can basically do or execute that job in isolation from others as long as you have a phone line and you get these calls routed to you from the system. Communication and coordination are not really an issue in this context, but they are a major challenge for distributed teams of remote workers.

Lastly, more than two thirds of this promoted increase in productivity “was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick days)”. Again, the study itself is clear on that, but most folks will not know this due to the way these numbers are cherry-picked and presented. The interpretation here, if you ask me, should be: OK, the employees working from home were simply able to put in more minutes per shift, for some reasons, which lead to them picking up more incoming calls.

Does that really count as productivity? If you and me were to measure how many widgets each of us can assemble in 60 minutes, and I have to get up to use the toilet, thereby missing a few minutes, but otherwise assembling at the same pace or rate as you, was I less productive?

Astonishing Productivity Boost

Here’s another article from Inc.com which is also reporting on the same study, with the headline “A 2-Year Stanford Study Shows the Astonishing Productivity Boost of Working From Home”.

This is misleading. We should not, actually cannot generalize from one group of Chinese call center agents that working from home results in an “astonishing productivity boost” and that “it’s time once and for all to embrace and enable the benefits of working from home.”

I am certainly a proponent and also a beneficiary of flexible work, but this kind of reporting is BS. Please, get real.