How much slower is remote work?

by jsteinhardtBounded Regret4 min read8th Oct 202111 comments

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I'm a bit of a productivity nerd, and I like to keep track of how long tasks take. Sometimes this involves actually tracking everything I do all day, although most of the time I just keep rough mental track.

Given that lockdowns forced everything remote for about a year, and that some people are still remote, I was pretty interested in how much remote vs. in-person work affects productivity. I have some pretty direct comparisons, because I can observe meetings with the exact same set of people on the exact same project, both before and after it switched from zoom to in-person. I also have some harder-to-compare anecdotes on long-term effects.

My bottom line is that remote work is sometimes significantly less efficient (by factors of 2x-5x), but that this effect is felt most for people who are new to an organization or who are switching fields or roles. In particular, many senior employees won't experience a productivity hit, so the relevant decision-makers might systematically underestimate the costs of remote work.

For context, I'm a professor at Berkeley, so my data is from managing students and post-docs, but I think the trends probably generalize. Overall, I think you will take the largest hit from remote work if you:

  • Are a junior employee, or are switching to a role that requires different skills or organizational knowledge.
  • Work on more "abstract" or "conceptual" topics where it is useful to draw on a board and have shared visual context with collaborators.

Conversely, you will not notice much drawback from remote work if you:

  • Are an experienced employee
  • Are mostly doing "execution-oriented" work (writing code or papers)

Managers are a special case here because they are senior and mostly execution-oriented, but some management (such as giving difficult feedback or propagating social norms) is much easier in person. As a manager, I also found myself spending more effort on monitoring and improving people's mental health, although that might have been because of Covid-19 and not remote work itself.

Some Data

Here's some actual data to back this up. For more math-oriented projects, when we switched from meeting over zoom to meeting in person, I found that our previous 60-minute meeting finished at the 40-minute mark, because we had discussed everything we wanted to. The speed-up was a combination of:

  • Fewer conversational pauses / interruptions, because it was clear from body language when someone was done talking.
  • Shared visual context: you could easily tell what someone was attending to (e.g. an equation on the whiteboard) because of their gaze.

For more experiment-oriented projects, the gains were less consistent. For some that involved looking at lots of graphs each week, the shared visual context was also important and led to a ~33% speed-up similar to math. For others, the experimental results were relatively clear and most discussion was brainstorming next steps, which wasn't much slower over zoom.

While this was the most measurable change, I suspect the biggest effects by far are around onboarding new group members / spinning up new projects. I had 2-3 projects start during Covid that were qualitatively new compared to what that person had done before. In each of these cases, the first week that we met in person, we immediately made progress on questions that had been stuck for 2-3 months. This seems huge to me.

I also notice instances of people picking up new skills (i.e. a more theory-oriented person getting better at programming) via osmosis from other people in their office. In some cases they had been trying to do this for a while remotely, but picked things up much faster after switching to in-person. This has even been true for me, where I've picked up valuable research/advising tips from hallway talk with other faculty (I just finished year 2 as a professor, and would have been pretty happy to get the same tips a year earlier!).

Finally, the social cohesion of my research group has unsurprisingly skyrocketed since switching back to in-person.

Benefits of Remote Work

The two main benefits of remote work, from a productivity standpoint, are avoiding an open office environment and having more control over who can interrupt you.

Open office environments, despite the hype, are pretty terrible. There is a significant minority of people (including me) who mostly can't get work done in them, because there are too many distracting visual and auditory stimuli. For this minority, and potentially for others, working from home is great because anything other than an open office is great.

In some workplaces with bad productivity cultures, it is common to be interrupted when you would otherwise be doing focused work (this need not coincide with open office environments---some people get interrupted even in private offices). Working from home removes this possibility, and so can also be an improvement.

Finally, some people prefer to work from home for other reasons not related to productivity (e.g. more flexible schedule), but that's beyond the scope of this post.

Getting People to Work In-Person

After noticing these benefits, I've wanted to encourage people to switch to in-person. Of course, this is a bit touchy because some people may prefer not to do so for health reasons, or are (quite reasonably) averse to wearing a mask all day (Berkeley still requires this). Prodding people only had some effect, but offering events with free food had a huge effect---I immediately got ~100% in-person attendance at group meetings, for instance, such that we stopped having to offer a zoom option. We currently hold the food part of the meeting outdoors. This works well, except that sometimes there aren't tables, so we stand in a circle. It turns out that a lot of people's social habits are built around sitting at a table, and in a giant circle it's harder to get free-flowing conversation. But this seems fixable, and most places have tables anyways.

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One relevant point is that remote work might be a “disruptive” technology: cheaper, more suitable for certain niches, etc, but not as good as the traditional thing. As time passes and the technology matures, it might claim increasing niches, such that in the end it surpasses or becomes an essential additive to the traditional technology.

It is definitely useful in some settings! For instance it's much easier to collaborate with people not at Berkeley, and in some cases those people have valuable specialized skills that easily outweigh the productivity hit.

I'm a big fan of remote work but love that you generated quantitative data for this. Thank you for sharing it.

Is it possible that the most productive solution would be some days in office and some days working from home, getting the benefits of cooperation and concentration on different days?

For example: 1 day of meetings (not necessarily 8 hours in a row, but the idea is that all meetings that are not an emergency and involve a manager, must be scheduled for this day), 1-2 days working together (without interruptions by managers), 2-3 days working from home.

The exact schedule would depend on team experience, for example the experienced employees might prefer "meetings on Monday, collaboration on Tuesday, three continuous days of uninterrupted work from home", while juniors might benefit from "meetings on Monday, collaboration on Tuesday and Thursday, work from home on Wednesday and Friday" (so if they get stuck, they only lose one day).

I personally have Wednesdays, plus Thursday mornings, as "no meeting days". I think it works pretty well and I know other faculty who do something similar (sometimes just setting mornings as meeting-free). So this does seem like a generally good idea!

I had a very similar setup for a while and it worked okay. We had one meeting day each week. It was mostly about whiteboarding and building social cohesion. We still communicated quite a lot on other days (mostly through text, rarely VC).

Specialising days like that seems like a good idea at first glance, but I get the feeling I'd burn out on meetings pretty quick if all my week's meetings were scheduled on one day. Being able to use a meeting as a break from concrete thinking to switch to more abstract thinking for a while is very refreshing.

Neglect not the morale and rest benefits of not needing employees to commute.

I wonder to what extent the issues described are fundamental and to what extent this is just a matter of adjustment / investment / development of new practices.

The organizations spend a huge amount of resources on shared offices. Contrast that with a lockdown remote setup when even having a decent internet connection and mic is not obvious for many people... What if some non-trivial fraction of office budget was allocated to remote setups? 

The best practices and social norms for remote work are not the same as in-person. If remote work becomes more mainstream, I expect that we'll collectively get better at this. Anecdotally, remote-first approach with self-selected people works better than "retrofitting" remote work in an in-person organization.

In my work my team members and clients are scattered across Boston, NY, Texas, California, Amsterdam, and Singapore anyway. Most of my work is during normal business hours, but I regularly have meetings as early as 7 or as late as 9-10. Not having to commute, and being able to easily shift hours without worrying about bus schedules, or being able to split my day and take time in the middle to run errands and do chores, is a huge boost in productivity. That said, I am in your category of an experienced employee who is mostly engaged in reading and writing.

 

Informally, one thing I've noticed is that some people, especially some more junior team members, seem more willing to speak up in (especially internal) group meetings over zoom than in person. In meetings with clients, zoom meetings also make it easier for one team member to Slack an idea or a reference or a data point over to whoever is presenting or speaking at the time, or to propose a question to ask, if they can't or don't want to speak up themselves.

As a home-officer since March 2020, I think there are productivity peaks on home working, comparing to the classic presential working model. The last one estimulates a constant work flow, and the possibility of flexible schedules makes the home working very dependable of the mentioned peaks, where no one (not even yourself of your bed) interrupts the flow. This can be great if one is organized enough to avoid demand congestion.