Are people more productive and emotionally positive working remotely? A new study co-authored by Dr Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School finds the answer may be in the mindset of employees.
The coronavirus pandemic has sparked plenty of debate over the benefits and drawbacks of remote working, but a new study comes to a simple conclusion: it may be in one’s mindset whether people will be more productive and emotionally positive working away from the office.
The study in the journal Human-Computer Interaction, based on knowledge workers in Switzerland, addresses the mixed results of previous studies on remote working: some research has found increased productivity and performance from remote working, while other studies conclude that some employees struggle with the transition to working away from the office. The new study thus focuses on the “fundamental beliefs” about the nature of remote work, and how they impact such a transition.
Remote work less productive with fixed mindsets
Specifically, the study finds that the extent to which a person holds a “fixed mindset” about remote work – “viewing it as an unchangeable ability that people either have or do not have” – is associated with whether people adjust well to remote work and thus their productivity and emotional well-being.
The study found that knowledge workers who hold a more fixed mindset about remote work experience more negative emotion and less positive emotion while working remotely, and will feel less productive during remote work because of the increased negative and decreased positive emotion that they experience. “Emotions at work predict a wide range of work-relevant outcomes, from motivation to creativity to absences and turnover,” the study says. “Generally in the workplace, negative emotions have detrimental effects on work performance, while positive emotions increase work performance.”
The study focuses on knowledge workers because knowledge-intensive jobs are deemed especially well-suited to remote work. The authors recruited 113 participants from sectors including education, IT, consulting and health for a five-week study about remote work. Questions asked in weekly questionnaires included: “You are either the kind of person who is good at working remotely or not and you can’t really do much to change it”; how often in the previous week did you feel emotions ranging from enthusiasm and inspiration on the positive side to irritability and guilt on the negative side; and “How productive or unproductive were you over the past week?”
“Our research shows in a sample of knowledge workers that fundamental beliefs about the nature of remote work, as captured in workers’ mindsets about whether remote work is an ability that can be learned or that people simply possess or not, are related to emotions and ultimately perceived productivity during remote work,” the study says.
“Knowledge workers who agreed that people simply either are or are not the kind of person who can work remotely tended to feel more negative and less positive emotion during the course of remote work.”
Employee mindsets and the adjustment to remote work
“Given the growing body of evidence suggesting that remote work enhances productivity, the future of remote work might seem bright,” the study concludes. “But our research identifies an important caveat: to transition successfully to remote work, employees may need to believe that remote work is a skill anyone can acquire, rather than something for which certain kinds of people are either well or poorly-suited. Accordingly, to ensure this brighter future, organisations should consider how employee mindsets affect adjustment to remote work. Remote work may be readily embraced by employees who believe people can develop what it takes to work remotely, but risks disadvantaging those who view remote work as an immutable skill.”
The study – entitled “Remote work mindsets predict emotions and productivity in home office: a longitudinal study of knowledge workers during the COVID-19 pandemic” – is co-authored by Lauren C. Howe of the Department of Business Administration at the University of Zurich, and by Dr Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School and the University of Zurich.