The concept of remote work and the impact it could have on the productivity and motivation of employees, has been in discussion long before the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2013 Stanford University study with 500 employees in China showcased that employee productivity increased by 13% as a result of working remotely in quieter environments.
The pandemic forced employers and governments across the world to adopt the remote work model. According to Statista, the global collaboration software market revenues rose by a whopping $15.9 billion in 2019 to $19.2 billion in 2021. These figures are expected to increase over the next few years, as digital transformation and remote work are here to stay.
Some companies believe that the best practice is a hybrid-first work model, while others are pursuing efforts to bring employees back to the office. In September 2022, Kastle Systems, a key-card property management company that monitors entries and exits from office buildings, reported that some businesses are close to 50% office capacity.
So, how has remote work impacted the relationships of employees? The way they connect on a professional level or even a friendly manner?
We conducted a survey in the United States across a wide age range, asking the participants about their experiences with remote and hybrid work models, and how it has impacted their productivity and their relationships with their colleagues.
To understand the role of remote work in the internal network of employers, we included participants across 31 states who are either working entirely remotely, or with a hybrid work model. The survey sample included a diverse audience, as people of various ages and industries have varying preferences when it comes to the methods and tools they use to perform.
- 82% of the participants were aged between 25 and 44 years old
- 18% were aged between 45 and 55 years old.
The majority worked across different industries including, but not limited to, finance, software, healthcare, and information services.
Remote Work and Productivity
71% of our participants claimed that their productivity has improved over the past two years. A further 21% stated that it remained unchanged and 8% believe that it deteriorated.
This came as no surprise. Removing the hours of commute, preparing food at home, and being close to the family are all elements that employees have appreciated. In the words of Allyson Zimmermann, Executive Director at Catalyst, “access to remote work increases employee well-being, productivity, innovation, and inclusion.”
Whereas, no one under the age of 34 found their productivity deteriorating.
Remote Work and Relationships With Colleagues
Despite the fact that remote work removes the boundary between work and home, people have been able to establish methods to communicate with colleagues without it becoming a burden. So much so, that for some, remote work has improved their relationships with their colleagues.
67% of our participants believe that their relationships with their colleagues have improved during the last two years. This figure was sufficiently higher among the younger ages, as 73.8% of the respondents between the ages of 25-34 answered positively.
This is in line with the findings of Dan Schwable, Managing Partner of Workplace Intelligence, who highlights that “over the past year their relationships have improved with their managers (32%), peers/colleagues on their team (25%), and peers/colleagues on other teams (21%).”
“When people trust one another and have social capital, you get a willingness to take risks, you get more innovation and creativity and less groupthink”.
Methods of Interactions
No matter the benefits of remote work, employees can get lonely. Nancy Baym, Jonathan Larson, and Ronnie Martin from Harvard Business Review elaborate, “the spontaneous informal interactions at risk in hybrid and remote work are not distractions or unproductive. They foster the employee connections that feed productivity and innovation – these interactions are the soil in which ideas grow.”
Our survey participants, however, have shared different methods that their employers promote in-person interactions:
- 26% said that social outings have been their company’s go-to method
- 23% of our participants stated their company does so through work retreats and off-site gatherings
An interesting point to note is that some companies encourage remote interactions with colleagues:
- 23% connect through digital Interactive Office Solutions
- 11% interact through online video game sessions.
Admittedly, we have tried the last two points at Covve by hosting virtual game nights and online yoga sessions once per month with great success, connecting our teams.
In addition to the above responses, we invited the participants to share other activities that would help them interact better with their colleagues at work. The most prominent responses were:
- The inclusion of outdoor activities and sports in the company’s schedule
- Department-wide lunches or occasional dinners with colleagues. This is a technique introduced at Google (and then the wider Silicon Valley) to encourage employees to eat together, connect, and share ideas for new projects
- The introduction of biweekly or monthly mentorship sessions
- Working together on volunteering activities and community service projects
The key message from our findings is that while remote work has increased employee productivity and improved their relationships, it did not eliminate the need for social interaction.
Company networking and bonding is still heavily facilitated at company outings and gatherings. Although online interactions and even video games are novel and rising methods in connecting employees at the remote or hybrid workplace, employees still need to connect over drinks, food, exercise, or even volunteering. This is well explained by a research-backed op-ed by Edward Glaeser and David Cutler from The Washington Post, which claims that “over the medium to long term, long-distance employment can’t deliver key benefits – including learning and new friendships – that come from face-to-face contact.”
Maintaining relationships with colleagues is key to forming what is known as ‘social capital, which can have a wider positive impact on the organization. According to Nancy Baym, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, social capital increases the employees’ willingness to take risks, which in turn leads to higher levels of innovation.
In this manner relationships and productivity are interconnected and interoperate.