In early 2020, a global pandemic forced millions of people into lockdown. As COVID-19 made it unsafe to interact with others in physical environments, huge swaths of the workforce, all around the world, rapidly transitioned to working remotely. While ‘remote work’ was not a new concept for some industries, the virus demanded that leadership teams across industries immediately implement virtual work options for all non-essential employees.

With the transition out of conventional work environments, many employers feared a workforce that would be less productive or inefficient when working from home. According to iSchool Assistant Professor Ingrid Erickson, this was particularly true for jobs that are considered “knowledge work”, where productivity had in the past been measured largely by how much time an employee spent in the office.

Erikson points out that in many work environments, employers calculate productivity by the number of tasks completed in a day. For example, in a manufacturing position, productivity may be measured by how many widgets an employee produces. In a different setting, a sales manager may assess productivity by how many calls a salesperson made or how much was sold.

But in “knowledge work”, which refers to workers who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge to their work, productivity can be more of a challenge to define. For example, a financial analyst may spend an entire day looking at and thinking about certain data sets, but may not complete a specified task as described by their employer. They are still working, but that productivity is more difficult to measure.

Because the metrics for measuring productivity in a knowledge work environment were more difficult to determine, time spent in the office often became the measure of an employee’s productivity. The assumption was that if employees were physically at work, they were working. Erickson notes that apart from being an inaccurate measure of actual productivity, this metric has been rendered obsolete in a workforce that works partly or entirely outside the traditional office.

In an effort to replace this time-in-office metric, employers have begun exploring a range of new options for measuring productivity. From tracking how responsive employees are through email and messaging platforms, to installing apps that track how much time people spend at their computers each day, many of these efforts have broad implications.

“There is an emergent rise of assessing the productivity of workers at home,” explains Erickson. “Which has far-reaching implications for everything from employee privacy to workplace advancement”.

New technologies are emerging that aim to support both employers and employees in measuring productivity and optimizing the remote work experience. From tracking how much time someone devotes to deeply productive work each day, to tracking every login, keystroke, mouse movement, and user behavior, including bandwidth usage, companies are able to measure both quantitative and qualitative components of work.

But with this data come major questions. Who owns this employee data? Where is the line in terms of privacy? What does all of this data really tell us about an employee, and how accurate are these metrics in terms of determining performance? And what does it say about your workplace culture if we’re surveilling every action an employee takes?

Nearly two years since the pandemic and forced lockdown, it doesn’t look like the remote or distributed work model will be disappearing anytime soon. More and more companies are considering fully remote or hybrid workspaces. Employees are saving time and money on commutes. Some people experience more flexibility in their workday, and others find more autonomy and feel more empowered to work independently.

But as businesses reevaluate their remote or distributed work scenarios, they need to consider these challenges to productivity and community, and how they will affect the greater culture of the work environment.

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