Great ResignationCompensationReturn to WorkCareersLabor UnionsSuccess Stories

Employees and managers have a key disagreement about one factor of remote work that affects productivity

January 9, 2023, 12:08 PM UTC
Twitter CEO Elon Musk
While Elon Musk’s demands for a minimum of 40 in-office hours a week weren’t an example of leadership at its finest, they do show that clarity and transparency are key to getting employees in line with managers’ expectations. 
CARINA JOHANSEN—NTB/AFP/Getty Images

After almost three years of working from home, managers are very much not on the same page as their workers when it comes to productivity.

Simply put: Managers believe that working from home reduces productivity while employees think it massively increases it. 

Now, new research published in the Harvard Business Review suggests this massive difference in opinion could boil down to very different parameters of what constitutes a working day.

When thinking about how productive their day was, HBR’s research shows that employees tend to include commuting time in their mental calculations. Therefore, they counted not having to commute on days working from home as an increase in productivity. Managers on the other hand tend to focus on output and ignore commuting time when thinking about staff productivity.

Does commuting count toward productivity?

Neither side is wrong.

First, take the employee’s point of view. Imagine a gig economy worker who charges a business a daily rate of $1,000. If they work a nine-hour day and spend an hour commuting, they are charging $100 for every hour they spend on the job. But on days working from home, they’re getting $111 for every hour they put toward the job. They are still putting nine hours of work into the job, but they don’t have to dip into their personal bank of time, energy, and money to commute to the office. 

However, from an employer’s perspective, they are getting less bang for their buck—or at least fewer hours for the same amount of money. An increase in productivity would have the employee working during the hour they formerly spent commuting.

Although these calculations are made up, and productivity isn’t only measured by the number of hours dedicated to a job, the disagreement illustrates why employees may perceive working from home as a personal productivity win while bosses do not. 

This difference in opinion becomes increasingly important as businesses ask staff to come back to the office—and reflects a need for clarity from employers on where they stand on the matter. 

Employees who opt to work from home in order to increase productivity could be putting themselves at risk of termination—especially if they’re specifically dodging “in-office” days. When HBR asked employees, “What happens to workers who work from the office on fewer days than requested?,” a third responded “nothing.” However, the majority of managers answered that they risked being fired. 

Changing norms

The HBR research comes as many businesses have started defining their policies on working from home.

Although many companies, including BlackRock, PwC, and Aviva, have adopted a hybrid work system, some are scrapping working from home altogether. 

After acquiring Twitter, Elon Musk made it his first order of business to end Twitter’s “work from anywhere” policy. Musk emailed the social media giant’s employees that they would be expected in the office for at least 40 hours a week and that unless approved by their manager, an office no-show would automatically equate to “resignation accepted.”

While the billionaire’s actions aren’t an example of leadership at its finest, it does show that clarity and transparency are key to getting employees in line with managers’ expectations on productivity and remote working. 

In the end, thousands who weren’t on the same page as Musk left the business.

Our new weekly Impact Report newsletter examines how ESG news and trends are shaping the roles and responsibilities of today’s executives. Subscribe here.