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Remote Work and the Mindset You'll Need for a Lasting Boost in Productivity

“We found, amazingly, that the working-from-home employees were 13 percent more productive, which is huge,” economist Nicholas Bloom told Paul Solomon in a Making Sen$e segment of the PBS Newshour. “That’s almost a day extra a week.”

Most of these gains came from employees working longer hours, as remote workers tend to keep at their tasks long after the traditional closing time. But a lot of the added productivity came from psychological factors, like fewer (or more manageable) distractions, and a greater sense of autonomy. The more control people have over their work and their surroundings, the better they tend to feel about what they’re doing, which leads to them getting more done.

Other studies have come to similar conclusions. One conducted by Gallup found that remote workers get a boost in productivity equivalent to about 3 extra weeks per year. But this study also showed that, especially when it comes to more creative work, companies get diminishing returns the more their employees work from home. For these participants, the ideal was working remotely somewhere between 60 and 80% of the time.

At the end of Bloom’s original study, about half the participants said they would be happy to continue working from home. The other half cited difficulties managing a good work-life balance and wanting to feel more connected to their coworkers as reasons for wanting to return.

The picture painted by these and other studies is of individuals having different preferences and working better under different circumstances. That applies to individual companies as well, and different industries obviously have different requirements that make remote work more or less feasible.

So, how do managers and workers strike a good balance? The question has become more urgent as the Covid-19 pandemic has been raging. Unfortunately, you can’t flip a switch and shift to remote work overnight, and many workers who are excited at first hearing about the option end up liking the arrangement much less than they originally anticipate.

Working from home can be hard. Offices have no monopoly on distraction. And your home office can quickly start to feel as confining and sickeningly familiar as your office at work. But there are measures both workers and managers can take to ease the transition.

The 5 Levels of Distributed Work

Former WordPress engineer Matt Mullenweg has become a big advocate of what he calls “distributed work.” He doesn’t like the term remote, because it implies a central location, and many businesses simply aren’t bothering to build a main headquarters in the first place.

As Mullenweg sees it, most of the difficulty companies deal with in moving toward distributed work arises from engrained habits based on the traditional model of factory work. On the managers’ side, there’s a desire to track workers’ productivity based on whether they’re at their station visibly doing their work. But, especially in creative fields, time at the desk doesn’t necessarily translate into more or better work produced. Plus, more and more companies have workers in far-flung parts of the world, so checking to see if they’re at their stations isn’t an option.

On the workers’ side, the difficulties stem from long stretches without feedback of any sort and a lack of connection to coworkers. The feeling of being part of a team and the sense of shared purpose that comes from interacting every day are not only inherently motivating but, for some, psychologically necessary.

But Mullenweg believes these issues are vestiges of the factory model and can be overcome with a shift in mindset—along with some technology. Here’s how he sees companies progressing toward a more seamless distributed arrangement.

Level 1

This is the starting point, and it’s where most companies are today. Managers may walk around the office to “get a feel” for how everyone is doing. Workers show up to the office at the same time every morning, and though they can do a little work from home if necessary, they’ll usually end up waiting for the office to reopen before getting past a certain point. At this level, managers are making little or no effort to make work “remote-friendly.”

Level 2

This is where many businesses moved during the lockdowns. At this stage, people are working from home, but managers are essentially trying to recreate the same dynamic as they had in the office setting. Everyone is urged to work synchronously, and managers are prompted by their anxiety over productivity to install surveillance software on company devices. Mullenweg insists this is a bad idea, and only delays the adoption of an output-based conception of productivity.

Level 3

Now, people are working on disparate devices, while various forms of written communication are replacing meetings in a step toward greater asynchrony—which just means everyone is working on their own schedules. Instead of Zoom meetings every morning, for instance, level-3 companies may rely on Slack threads workers can read and comment on at any time.

In-person meetings still occur but are infrequent and often serve the sole purpose of helping workers get to know each other. Instead of checking in at intervals, everyone participates in threads as needed. This way, they can stay abreast of company developments, share information, and stay connected without having to sit through so many brutally pointless meetings.

Level 4

At this stage, your company has achieved true asynchrony, and can pass the baton, as it were, from one region to the other, keeping business workflows online 24/7. Now, workers are evaluated on the products of their work, not on when they show up or how they present themselves.

And now everyone feels empowered to share their ideas, not just the workers who are the most extraverted and assertive. Here too, company-wide messaging platforms that allow you to tag coworkers play a big role, and virtual meetings become more strictly task-specific—i.e. they’re no longer pro forma occasions for everybody to check in.

Level 5

This is the never-quite-fully-achievable stage where not only is your business functioning better than it ever possibly could have in a single office location, but everyone is working in an environment conducive to wellness and optimal mental health, bringing, as Mullenweg describes it, their “best selves and highest levels of creativity to do the best work of their careers, and just have fun.”

Tips for Avoiding the Psychological Pitfalls of Distributed Work

Implicit in Mullenweg’s progression model are a few key factors leading to success. First, you’ll have to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding how the transition will proceed and what success will look like. If workers and management have different ideas and different goals for what the distributed work model is going to look like, then chaos and lost productivity will be the most likely outcomes.

But, for individual workers, the big challenge is staying motivated and staying on course in the absence of oversight and immediate feedback. Mullenweg believes it’s autonomy that brings out the best in workers, but some percentage of people will feel lost without the traditional factory framework of company start times, break times, and end times.

Here are some steps you can take toward embracing autonomy without losing direction:

1. Work out higher-order goals with your managers.

Since you won’t be surveilled all day, find out what you should be working to produce. More than that, though, try to find out the ultimate purpose of that work, so you can be free to develop your own strategies for fulfilling that purpose. Focusing on higher-order goals will help both you and your manager avoid stifling your creativity through micromanagement.

2. Translate those goals into in criteria for success.

If you’re doing your job well, what can you expect to see? Which needles on which dials are you hoping to move? Your manager may not be able stop by your desk throughout the day, but he or she will still be evaluating your work from a distance. Before striking out on your own, make sure you and your managers have a shared vision of how your work will be assessed.

3. Make a prioritized To-Do list.

Lists are amazing low-tech productivity tools. There are countless ways to use them, and you should choose whatever method works best for you. But one simple and effective approach is to start each workday with a list of 3 high-order goals you can reach before the day is out. Under each general goal, you write 2 or 3 specific tasks associated with that goal, along with an estimate of how much time each will take.

4. Block off times for high productivity.

For intense work that demands a high degree of focus, you’ll probably want to work in bursts of 25 minutes or so. For less demanding work, you can go for stretches of up to 45 minutes. At the end of each time block, make yourself take a break. Many workers actually use a stopwatch (or an app) to help them free up mental space as they alternate between tasks of varying intensity—and to help them remember to take breaks.

This is how you can be your own supervisor, ensuring that you stay on-task while maximizing your productivity. Just tackle your work according to your prioritized list of daily goals and keep going until you’ve finished each task on your list.

5. Cross-Reference the day’s accomplishments with your overall goals and do a pre-plan for the next day.

At the end of the day, take 10 or 15 minutes to compare your achievements to the goals you worked out with your managers in step 1. Are you making progress in the right direction? Do you need to adjust course? After answering these questions, you’re ready to make a preliminary list of goals for your next workday.

You’ll revisit and revise that list the next day, but taking an early crack at it primes the creative pump so you can be assured you’re making the best use of your time. Depending on the nature of your work, you may be able to sign off at this point, or you may need to keep checking in with your colleagues—but you should be allowed to switch off completely at some designated time to avoid burning out.

There are other obvious steps toward distributed work success—like making sure you have a relatively distraction-free workspace—but following the steps outlined here should give you a good start. Then you can determine whether you’ll do best working from home a hundred percent of the time or some smaller fraction.

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