What Working from Home Taught Me About Productivity

woman smiling working at computer

Early in my career, my mother, who is very German, sent me an email. “On your birthday, I wish you health, happiness and to be an efficient worker.” It was 7 a.m. on a Tuesday. I was already at my desk.

Conventional wisdom was that to achieve something, you had to be at the office. That meant arriving before the boss and departing only after she left.

But good leaders must examine and reexamine their beliefs constantly. Check assumptions at the door and listen carefully to other viewpoints. Which is why in 2019—despite skepticism that any real work could occur outside the workplace—we decided it was time to try an experiment: our employees were given the option to work from home.

Some still made the daily commute, but others happily roosted at home. We eagerly waited to see the results: How would working from home affect productivity, communication, satisfaction and more?

Little did we know that working from home would become mandatory for so many communicators just a few months later. We also had no idea a global pandemic would spark a debate on the topic.

Communicators Need Community

Our industry thrives on community: We love collaboration, social interaction and the kind of creative fusion that brings smart, strategic, and sometimes silly, ideas together to make great work on behalf of those we represent.

As a result, many offices in the communication, marketing and advertising sector emphasize open spaces, coffee bars, community soft-areas, work walls. We buttonhole colleagues in the lunchroom to bounce ideas off each other. We convene in conference rooms to conjure the kind of magic that springs only from a collective mind. The workplace is a lab where creative chemistry happens, right? Wrong.

At home, connecting with colleagues via phone and videoconference, I realize my focus on the workplace was wrong. Where we work doesn’t really matter much. What matters is how we approach work, and whom we work with. It’s the human component of working from home that has surprised, educated and sustained me these past months.

Teams are Tighter

The increased collaboration among employees is palpable—perhaps at higher levels than it was in the office. The awkwardness of video conferences has forced us to listen more carefully. Glitchy audio lags remind us to stop and yield the floor to others.

The need for connection has made teams tighter. There’s an equalizing effect that makes rank seem less important (a fancy corner office doesn’t impress on Zoom). And with this leveling, ideas from experienced and newer employees tend to get more equal weight. More people get to talk, more opinions are heard, better ideas are shared and debated.

All this has led to more inclusivity of thought and expression.

Leadership also has grown more mindful. The uncertainty of a global pandemic, economic worries and vital discussions in the wake of George Floyd's murder have required more of managers. They must be more transparent, listen with openness, forge understanding through difficult conversations and do so with empathy, grace, and openness.

Changes in Internal Communication

Internal communication—something that once was a weekly or monthly email—must now be more nimble and more frequent.

Messaging also has to do more than just transmit information. Communication needs to be purposeful, personal and felt. It has to stand in for company culture. Without a physical workplace to signal values, mission and brand, communication is the singular thread that connects employees. Without proximity, we have to create culture through creative and purposeful communication.

I no longer worry much about productivity or wonder whether working from home is detrimental to the company’s future. Working from home has brought unseen benefits. Even I, the skeptic, have become a fan of remote work.

Yes, I miss elevator rides with new staff, stairway conversations with colleagues and casual check-ins. I look forward to enjoying human workplace interactions again. But for now, I’m reveling in working from home. The commute is certainly easier. I turn my chair 90 degrees and I’m home.

Marcus Fischer is CEO of Carmichael Lynch