The Science of RTO: How to Balance Remote and Office Work

Drawing of a man in work clothes on the right half and casual clothes on the leftDuring the pandemic lock-downs, some executives finally learned something scholars have known for a long time: Most people are just as productive at home, if not more so, if the nature of their work allows it. However, a mountain of research shows physically collocated teams outperform similar virtual teams. Put those two points together, and a logical solution appeared long before it was being discussed in 2021 regarding the return to the office (RTO) by “knowledge workers.”

The practice of remote working may be older than you realize. A team of researchers summarized what science knew about “telecommuting” as of 2015.1 Their journal article says the term was probably coined by a NASA engineer in 1973. Large companies like IBM began using telecommuting in the 1970s, even before the personal computer existed. Legislation to cut pollution and accommodate disabled people sped up the trend in the USA. “By 1997, 10,000 federal government employees were working from home or from other remote locations.” A 2010 U.S. law required federal agencies to allow telecommuting.

The term overlaps with others like telework and remote work, none defined the same way across various sources. The researchers say telecommuting is basically what we thought of, pre-COVID, as flexwork: working mostly from home, communicating by computer and phone, except with occasional in-person hours. It leaves out people whose primary work is outside the office, like salespeople or repair workers.

The review found strong evidence that telecommuting is related to somewhat higher individual and firm performance, worker satisfaction, and commitment to stay with the employer. “Many companies… cite bottom-line reasons for offering telecommuting, such as cost savings on office space and energy and attraction and retention of desirable workers,” the journal article says, five years before the pandemic.

There are devils in the details, though. For example, the review says a 2007 meta-analysis combining data from 28 studies found telecommuting raised job satisfaction when done up to 15 hours a week; more remote hours did not translate to more “job sat.” The increased sense of isolation you read about online, and perhaps have experienced, is the culprit. Isolation is reduced when workers are more empowered, on interactive teams, or more internally motivated as opposed to being focused on rewards. In fact, autonomy was a key factor. Trying to control someone wipes out their job sat gains from remote work, and reduces worker performance and commitment—just as it does in-person.

Doing some work remotely does not damage relations with co-workers, but higher levels can. “Telecommuters mentioned that they missed the idle conversations in the hallway and other informal conversations that result in learning and knowledge sharing…” One fear about remote work seems misplaced, though: Telecommuting did not have either a measurable or self-rated impact on career progression or wages.

The review of the science added more evidence that face-to-face (F2F) conversation is powerful. Workers said it was the best means for keeping good peer relationships. F2F increases knowledge-sharing and creativity. And again, the article said collocated teams outperform virtual teams that meet F2F regularly, while both types outperform completely virtual teams.

Words of warning arose in a 2008 paper regarding worker health.2 In general, managers saw telecommuting as something to manipulate for the firm’s advantage. A senior manager said, “‘You take an hour out to go and take the kid to the dentist, that’s also fine, but don’t ever complain when we’ve got to meet a deadline. You know what the deadline is. You decide how you’re going to work the overtime, not me.’” This, of course, completely ignores the fact that managers often impose unrealistic deadlines. Another manager forced a woman back to work two weeks after she had a baby, because she was critical to the work—but really, I note, because the manager had not cross-trained others to fill in. The same was true in the case of someone who had to be on-call literally all the time. In a damning phrase, the researchers say, “This study found that managers feel responsible for productivity but not for the work process or its effect on workers’ bodies.” From what I see on social media today, the pandemic has not changed these attitudes much.

Obviously, remote work is not possible for the majority of workers. Firefighting, brick-and-mortar retail, child care… the list is long. For any others, once your teams can gather safely in terms of COVID, the science has suggested for more than 20 years that you can raise worker productivity and satisfaction by combining “core hours” for F2F time with flexibility the rest of the time. An example office schedule is 103 Tuesday through Thursday, working around school hours and long weekends. This is when everyone should be in the office unless sick or on vacation. You schedule your regular meetings during core hours, and everyone is expected to attend in person to increase meeting effectiveness. The rest of the time, allow people to work whenever and wherever they want, to maximize benefits for both the firm and the workers.

1 Allen, Tammy D., Timothy D. Golden, and Kristen M. Shockley, ‘How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings’, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16.2 (2015), 40–68 <>. All data and quotes are from this source unless otherwise noted.

2 MacEachen, Ellen, Jessica Polzer, and Judy Clarke, ‘You Are Free to Set Your Own Hours”: Governing Worker Productivity and Health Through Flexibility and Resilience’, Social Science & Medicine, 66 (2008).

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