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If productivity decreases because of telework, then something is wrong; either the wrong people are teleworking, the wrong tasks are being attempted remotely, or teleworkers don't have the tools and support they need to succeed. This is why it is important to pick the right employees, the right managers, the right work, and have the right policies and support in place when embarking on a telework program.

There are many claims of increased productivity from telework. It's possible that some claims of productivity are exaggerated. Many figures come from self-reporting surveys in which workers themselves claim they are more productive at home; the usual explanation is because there are fewer interruptions and distractions at home. Although claims may be exaggerated, this doesn't mean they are untrue.

One self-reporting survey conducted by the National Sciences Foundation and Telework Exchange (September 2007) demonstrates the difference in how employees and managers view productivity. They agree precisely on everything except productivity - employees are much more positive than managers, and in this case 67% of the managers are teleworkers themselves, at least part of the time. While only 39% of the managers say productivity increased, another 48% say it was unchanged (87% combined say productivity is either increased or unchanged). Only 13% of the managers thought productivity had decreased.

As Perceived
by Employees
As Perceived
by Managers
Decreased commute time 84% 85%

Less frequent interruptions 77% 77%

Increased productivity 67% 39%

Better work/life balance 63% 63%

A study by the Clean Air Campaign, a Georgia non-profit, found that more than two-thirds of teleworkers believed they were more productive at home; half of the managers agreed. One reason for the increase is that 57% of the teleworkers said that some of the average 91 minutes saved each day by not commuting was spent on work for their employer.

There are other factors that may explain increased productivity:

  • Telework increases morale and job satisfaction. It is reasonable to expect satisfied workers will perform better.
  • Employees allowed to telework often have more experience and a stronger skill set than the "average" employee. In other words, they are highly productive to begin with. Their productivity in the office may be hindered by interruptions from low-performing employees. Getting away from the interruptions causes their output to soar.
  • The most difficult work, that requiring the most concentration and creativity, is often saved for telework days. This is the type of work most likely to produce a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, which may equate to feelings of productivity.
  • Most teleworkers like teleworking and place high value on their telework days. They are motivated to prove they can be productive at home.
  • Teleworkers may be more productive because they are managed differently than employees in the office. Teleworkers are often held to a higher standard of accountability with set goals and deliverables. If this is the case, then all employees should be managed this way, regardless of where they work.

Unless teleworkers are performing tasks that can be counted, like number of sales calls or number of reservations, it is often difficult to measure productivity. This is especially true when "quality of work" is as important as "quantity of work". Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Whenever possible, any measurement applied to teleworkers should be applied equally to non-teleworkers. Even self-reporting surveys should ask the same questions of both groups. Without this there is no objective frame of reference.
  • Don't confuse individual productivity with group productivity. The real issue is whether the productivity of an individual employee increases or decreases with telework. If there is a decrease, something is wrong that needs to be addressed (wrong employee, wrong work, wrong equipment, or lack of support).
  • Don't become obsessed about measuring productivity. Trying to measure keystrokes, for example, will just take up a lot of time and prove that management doesn't trust employees. Telework does assume a certain degree of trust: Prepare your people and trust them to do the work.
  • Don't expect sensational gains in productivity right away. It takes time for organizations and employees to work out the kinks and settle into a routine.
  • Suitable equipment can make a difference. Employees working from home can't be as productive if they don't have the tools.
  • Make sure that employees selected for telework have the traits and qualifications suitable for independent work. Keep in mind though that every employee is an individual, and often the most productive employees are selected for telework at first. Employees added later may not be as productive at home as the first tier, but they may be more productive than they were before.

For many organizations, the real measure of productivity is the same for teleworkers as for those in the office: simply, whether or not the work is being completed on time and whether or not it meets or exceeds the required standards. Teleworkers and in-office workers alike should be held to the same standards.

In the Toolkit

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On the Web

National Sciences Foundation Survey
Follow above link to Telework Exchange and register to see survey

Clean Air Campaign Press Release
June 16, 2008

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This page was last updated on June 7, 2009