Is flexible work more productive?

There are plenty of studies examining the effect of flexibility on productivity, and most of them contradict each other. So how do you know what to believe, and more importantly, what to do?

2nd Apr 2024

How can we get to the truth of how flexibility impacts productivity?

We'v got to start by doing two things:

  1. Dig underneath the data
  2. Understand what actually drives productivity

Getting right to the point, it all comes down to the importance of in-person connection.

Now, before you think we're about to start shouting about how everyone should return to the office full time, keep reading. In-person connection can be found in a myriad ways, and in almost all working environments.

Reviewing the productivity studies

A few years ago, when Covid19 forced the workforce into the largest remote work experiment the world has ever seen, a study was done on remote work and its impact on flexibility. This study showed that remote working was overwhelmingly more productive.

What was actually happening? People were working additional hours. We were all stuck at home with nothing else to do and winning back hours of commuting time.

A year or so later, another productivity study was done, an industry specific one, which showed that flexible work was less productive.

What was actually happening? People were learning slower.

And in one of the most recent studies? Fully remote was found to be less productive, but cheaper, which offset the reduced productivity.

This same study also suggested that hybrid working and in office working are matched on productivity.

And if you have to choose between two equally productive environments, hybrid wins with its impact on employee happiness and engagement.

So what’s the secret to productivity?

That’s not clickbait, we're genuinely going to tell you.

But first, some context around why this debate continues. The fact of the matter is that flexibility is not, and won’t ever be, a one size fits all thing. Why? Because employees are people. A company is made up of lots of diverse people, all who have differing requirements, needs, wants, and also strengths and weaknesses.

This is why, at Flexa, we will never campaign that one type of working arrangement is better than another. Different people, and different businesses, have different needs and preferences.

What’s important is that people, and companies, figure out which is the right environment for them to thrive in. That’s it. That’s the secret to productivity.

Alex Slater, Head of People at Flexified company Seatfrog says: “We’ve seen first hand how productivity and flexibility go hand-in-hand; encouraging our team to make work work around life (instead of the other way round), has meant the team are laser-focused on what they need to do and can ruthlessly prioritise so they can still make it to school pick up, or their spin class (and sometimes even that dentist appointment they’ve been putting off for weeks..!) The 4 day week helps too, it’s the one thing we’re not flexible about; we make sure everyone enjoys a proper break every week!”

Now let’s dive a little deeper…

What actually makes someone productive?

To understand what working environment will suit the majority of people we need to understand what makes someone productive. Things that have proven impact on productivity include:

  • Feeling engaged
  • Feeling motivated
  • Collaboration within teams
  • Feeling part of something bigger
  • Being clear on goals and outcomes
  • Understanding progression frameworks
  • Mission and values of the company

The key here is that in-person connection underpins all of the above. Sure, you can collaborate, feel engaged, and understand the mission of the company without any in person time.

But, we are social animals, and a sprinkling of in-person connection can greatly enhance an employee’s motivation and engagement. These moments of time spent together, in real life, help to tick off so many of those elements that make up a person’s productivity.

What’s the ideal set up?

If I was in a betting mood, my money would be on hybrid being the working environment that suits the vast majority of people.

Remember: Hybrid comes in many many forms. And you might want different working environments at different points in your career; more in-person coaching when you take on a new challenge, more time at home when you’re a new parent or carer.

This is part of what makes hybrid working so brilliant.

Hybrid can look like:

🏠 3-4 days a week at home, and weekly in-person connection, like the team at FSCS.

🌍 Hiring all over the world, but making time for team building days, like at Quantexa.

✈️ Plenty of time in-person, but with the chance to work from anywhere, like at VaynerMedia.

So, is fully remote a bad choice?

No. Not at all. But remote working is misunderstood.

Many fully-remote teams actually meet in person a few times a year, hosting weekend or week long company off-sites or events to bring in this time for connection.

Of course there are people who thrive in a totally remote environment, with zero in-person contact, and find this to be their very best option, both professionally and personally. But these people are rare.

Some companies that are thriving in the fully remote environment are:

🌎 The team at Storyblok, who are fully remote, with a few team building days thrown in. Storyblok prioritises giving their team a great WFH set up to really make sure remote work…works.

💻 are a fully remote team, with no requirement for in-office time, yet they do offer co-working access if that’s what their team wants!

🌴 Getting together once or twice a year can be a great way to be fully remote too. FitXR offers company away days/holidays to keep the team connected.

Kirsty Wardlaw from Flexified company Lewis explains, "Flexible working has allowed us the opportunity to provide more options around where and when each member of our team works, and not judge the choices that they take. Since embracing fully remote working, our productivity and client response rates have increased, our margins have improved, our time-management is so much better and we’ve benefited in ways we couldn’t have imagined before now by allowing our team more responsibility for their own work/life balance."

Neither flexibility nor productivity is a one size fits all thing. But the vast majority of people will thrive off of some in-person connection. Whether it’s once a year or multiple times a week.

What can you take away from this?

The challenge really is matchmaking. Individuals figuring out where they are most productive, and then finding a company who transparently works in that same way.

We see hundreds of thousands of people every month using Flexa to find the right working environment for them to be productive in, and we have companies representing everything from a little bit of location flexibility to fully remote.