Productivity Battle: Remote vs. In-Office Workers

Sandra Petrova

Sandra Petrova

Remote Work Researcher

“Want to grab a cup of coffee?” This is a line Robert never hears at the office as he and his team work from home. They’re remote workers who are creating software for home design. For them, “let’s grab a cup of coffee” translates into “let’s meet on Skype.” For his managers, it’s more important Robert be able to instantly jump on a video call than to be physically present in the same room. He has all the software tools available at hand to complete his work and communicate with his coworkers at any time. So why be constrained by being in the office?

Amelia and her entire team work in a Baltimore office. They have a two-floor space and teams that are divided by department. The marketing and sales team downstairs, the developers upstairs. She works in close proximity to others and collaboration is easy. They even have ping pong tables in their conference rooms. Rainforests at the lobby. Hammocks and gaming rooms in the lounging area.

At the end of the day, who has been more productive? Robert or Amelia? Without any social interaction, is Robert motivated to do his best work? Does the money spent on gaming rooms bring anything meaningful to Amelia?

As more jobs become tied to computers and more millennials enter the workforce, working from home is rapidly becoming a growing trend. On the other hand, while technology makes remote work more and more feasible, organizations worldwide are finding that keeping employees on-site is more effective.

At the end of the day, the question remains. Is working from home more productive than working from the office? Traditional leaders will tell you that working in-office leads to improved employee productivity, while remote workers will prove them wrong. Who’s right?

The Ups and Downs of Remote Workers

Much to paranoid managers’ surprise, a 2-year Stanford study revealed that remote workers weren’t lying on their couches in Save Our Planet t-shirts, eating tacos and watching Jimmy Fallon playing games with guests.

Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom collaborated with James Liang, co-founder, and CEO of Ctrip, one of China’s largest travel agencies. The company wanted to make the work-from-home move but needed proof that employee productivity won’t go down the drain.

With the help of professor Bloom, he designed a test where 250 employees were studied whilst working at HQ, and 250 more who volunteered to work from home. The study showed a significant productivity boost among the remote workers. It turned out that those who worked from home worked a true full-shift or more. They found working from home to be less distracting and easier to concentrate. What’s more, employee attrition decreased by 50%, and they took less time off, fewer sick days, and shorter breaks.

Scott Mautz, the author of “Find the Fire: Ignite Your Inspiration and Make Work Exciting” tells that when he left his corporal job, he found one significant downside to remote working. The one thing he didn’t expect to feel in his life as an entrepreneur was to constantly feel lonely.

Although he talks to his business partner and wife every day, works with clients and holds workshops, a large portion of his work is solitary. He missed his co-workers and work friends, the moments they shared together, and the daily laughs and jokes. From the bottom of his entrepreneurial heart, he longed for someone to greet him in the morning and say “How was your vacation?” For Scott, “the privilege it is to share such extensive slices of someone else's life with them, side by side. The sense of camaraderie.”

The Uncertain Productivity of Office Workers

Although the office receives a lot of criticism these days, it still remains the dominant form of workplace design. According to a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “the open office can foster collaboration, promote learning, and nurture a strong culture.”

Recently, companies such as Yahoo, Bank of America, Aetna, and IBM, reduced or completely eliminated their telecommuting programs. This came as a surprise to many people as piles of data on how much millennials appreciate flexibility in work schedule emerged in the business world. Why were companies calling their remote workers back to the office?

“I think these companies are really struggling to compete at an innovation level with smaller-stage organizations,” said Thanh Nguyen, managing director of HR consulting firm Connery Consulting. “They’re thinking of every single possible way to reunite people to drive better innovations.”

What’s more, Nguyen points out “while [remote working] solutions like Slack and Asana make telecommuting much easier, it's difficult when you have a sub team of 1,000.”

On the downside, one study revealed that the number of employees who said they’re having a hard time concentrating at their office has increased by 16% since 2008. Moreover, the number of employees who say they don’t have access to quiet places to focus is up by 13%.

Additional studies suggest that open office spaces, apart from being loud and sniffly, they’re actually hurting our brains. Everyone here was distracted, productivity suffered, and employees were unhappy. As numerous companies have embraced the open office concept, the research found that people are 15% less productive, have more trouble concentrating and they’re twice as likely to get sick.

Even though it’s unlikely that the open office concept will go away anytime soon, many companies are making a return to private spaces or encourage remote work.

The Best Option Might be a Combination

Leaving the office for good and secluding ourselves at home to focus on our work isn’t the best answer. Neither is working a 9 to 5 job, five days a week. The ideal solution is a mixture of in-office and remote working.

Spending the majority of our days in the same office as our co-workers might result in polite, but impersonal relationships. When people are working remotely, they have fewer chances of face-to-face encounters and forming meaningful relationships. However, a comprehensive analysis of 46 studies showed that as long as people were in the office for at least two and a half days per week, “telecommuting will have no detrimental effect on the quality of workplace relationships.”

Too much remote work will create a chain of issues, including decreased engagement, cultural disconnect, and diminished knowledge transfer. Going to the library or shared coworking spaces to avoid feeling lonely is not the long-term answer.

Using “hip” office designs to attract talent and media is not the solution to employees feeling overexposed at the workplace. Google's playground offices include billiard and ping pong tables, slides instead of stairs, and open plan offices with odd furniture. Despite these “office perks”, employees are complaining that this design serves more as a distraction than a purpose.

There’s a growing need for the creation of flexible workspaces to fit all types of workers. As not all workers are thrilled with hot-desking in an open office, companies around the globe need to design office spaces with an improved privacy. This can strengthen collaborative activities and increase employee performance.

The success of any company lies in creating a supportive culture that gives employees control over where and how they work and how they manage their privacy.


Providing the ability to move easily between remote work and office work creates a productive rhythm. Employees can come together to think about a problem and then go away to let ideas gestate. This flexible model is essential to the modern organization and the employees of the future.

  • Without any social interaction, Robert is not motivated to do his best work. Gaming rooms don’t bring anything meaningful to Amelia.
  • Remote workers aren’t lying on their couches in Save Our Planet t-shirts, eating tacos and watching Jimmy Fallon.
  • In-office workers aren’t more productive than remote workers. The distractions at the office are numerous.
  • The ideal solution is a combination of in-office and remote work. This can strengthen collaborative activities and increase employee performance.

Sandra Petrova

Remote Work Researcher