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Are remote workers actually working?

Survey asks employers and employees to weigh in on remote workers’ performance and productivity.

When it comes to answering the question “Are remote workers actually working?” it’s easy to hear some skepticism behind the text. “Working from home” often comes with its own set of air quotes, like it’s code for “hanging out” or “watching Netflix.” But is that skepticism deserved? Or are remote workers getting a bad rap?

To get a clearer picture of remote workers and their habits, TSheets conducted two surveys: One for remote employees and one for employers who have remote workers on their team.* In addition to asking how remote employees spend their time on the clock, we asked about productivity, performance, and perceptions.

‘Working from home’ might mean ‘walking the dog’

When asked if they’ve ever done outside-of-work tasks inside of work hours, remote workers answered honestly: Absolutely.

  • Just 23% of respondents said they never spend their remote workday doing personal tasks.
  • 64% said they sometimes take care of personal tasks during the workday.
  • Another 13% said they always have something personal to get done while on the clock.

While they are working remotely, the majority of these employees are also taking care of a few personal errands, whether it be picking the kids up from school in the afternoon or taking the dog for a walk around midday. When asked how much time they spend on personal tasks, remote workers fessed up about that, too.

30% said they spend 30 minutes a day doing personal tasks during work, while 39% said they spend an hour or more on such personal errands.

But here’s the thing: Taking a little time to exercise Fido or enjoy a long lunch isn’t unexpected. In fact, employers of remote workers thought their remote employees were spending more time at home doing personal tasks.

70% of employers said they thought their remote workers were sometimes taking care of personal tasks while on the clock, and nearly 25% said they estimated that time to be about two hours a day.

So what’s going on here? If bosses know their remote employees aren’t always working, why not call back the troops? What’s keeping employers from demanding their remote workers stop wasting time?

Time remote workers say they spend on personal tasks vs. time bosses think they spend

‘Working from home’ might mean ‘I’m more productive’

Say two employees are both scheduled to work 40-hour weeks. One employee works all 40 hours and accomplishes his or her entire to-do list. The other employee only spends 20 hours on work but also accomplishes his or her entire to-do list. There’s no difference in quality. Should their boss take disciplinary action against the employee who did their work in half the time?

For most employers of remote workers, the answer is a resounding no, and remote workers know it.

When asked how their boss would rate their productivity, 74% of remote employees said they know their boss thinks they are productive. Over half (54%) said they would rate their work performance as “above average,” compared to their coworkers’.

Bosses answered similarly, though they weren’t entirely as confident as their remote employees. When asked about their remote workers’ productivity, 54% of bosses rated their remote employees as “highly productive,” while 41% thought their remote workers could be more productive.

But what is productivity compared to performance? While just over half of remote workers felt their performance was “above average,” nearly 60% of employers felt the same. In total, 59% of employers said they would rate their remote workers’ performance as “above average,” compared to their other employees.

How remote workers rate their performance vs. how their bosses rate their performance

‘Working from home’ doesn’t mean ‘working without consequences’

If there’s one thing we learned from our remote workers’ campaign, it’s that no one’s pulling the wool over the boss’s eyes. Whether they make it known to their remote workers or not, most employers are well aware that employees working from home aren’t locking themselves inside their home office. Still, every relationship built on trust has its limits, and it’s important that remote employees know those limits, for the good of everyone involved.

When asked about that trusting relationship, 72% of remote employees said they believe their boss trusts them to work independently. Similarly, 3 out of 5 said they’ve never had to justify their work when working remotely.

For bosses, the answers were a little different but still positive. 99% of employers said they “sometimes” or “always” trust their remote employees to work independently. That’s 26 percentage points higher than remote workers answered.

What’s more, bosses understand a lot of the more subtle challenges remote workers have, completing their duties outside the office. For instance, 31% of remote workers said the thing they missed most about working in an office was social interaction. 14% said they didn’t feel they were part of a team.

To combat that sense of loss, 60% of employers said they pay for their remote workers to have collaborative tools like Slack or Teams. 60% said they also pay for their remote employees’ internet service, which is good because “slow internet” was the top complaint for 13% of remote employees.

What employers of remote workers typically pay for

‘Working from home’ doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone

In some ways, remote workers are just like any other employee. They have occasional bouts of unproductivity. They have their own struggles and measures of success. 17% said they get overlooked for promotions, while 11% said they sometimes get left out of the decision process— feelings all workers have at some time or another.

Remote workers also aren’t blind to how others might see them or how they might improve their performance. 1 in 3 felt a more structured workday could improve productivity. 1 in 5 felt a dedicated home office would do the same. Employers looking to help their remote employees make the most of their time on the clock—be it at home or somewhere else—should not be afraid of asking these individuals how they might be more productive. Then challenge them to make that change and report the results.

Performance and perception aside, it’s important to remember that when it comes to remote employees, one size does not fit all. Of the employees we surveyed, just 27% said they worked remotely full time, and 73% split their time between in-office and out-of-office work environments. 1 in 3 had a dedicated home office, while 1 in 4 did not but still worked at home. 15% said they worked at a client’s home, while nearly the same number reported working from a variety of locations.

Where remote workers are working

While having a dedicated home office might be the solution one remote worker needs to be more focused, for another, such an arrangement may not be possible. That’s why it’s important employers look at their remote worker arrangements on a case-by-case basis and avoid blanket policies that could ostracize otherwise exemplary employees.

‘Working from home’ does mean ‘working’

We asked remote workers and employers of remote workers about the habits of such employees, and they had a lot to say. Even though both groups said such employees weren’t working all of the time, neither group felt that was the only relevant response.

So whether you’re the employer of a remote worker or an employee who works remotely, take heart: There will always be those who surround “working from home” with an air of skepticism, but as long as the work gets done and done well, who cares if someone’s walking their dog?

 

*Methodology: TSheets commissioned Pollfish to survey 632 American employees in January 2019, aged 18+, who work remote at least one day a week, to learn more about their work habits. Additionally, TSheets commissioned Pollfish to survey 632 business owners and hiring managers, aged 18+, who have at least one remote worker in their workforce, to find their views on their remote workers’ habits. TSheets designed and paid for the survey and welcomes the re-use of this data under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original source is cited with attribution to “TSheets.”

Additional survey questions

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