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Guide to working from home

Working from home, its influence on productivity
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Black Swans are extremely rare events, so the probability of a specific Black Swan event occurring is low. However, this does not mean that the probability of any Black Swan event occurring is low.

Right now Black Swans appear to be arriving in flocks. In the past year, Hong Kong businesses have had to struggle with the US-China Trade War, social unrest and the Coronavirus outbreak. Instead of wallowing in the misery of the situation, this guide examines what can be learned from the experience. Its aim is to help business leaders to understand how best to support people so that they can work well in today’s disruptive world, and become more future-ready in doing so.

It examines:

  1. 1. The dimensions of flexible and remote working
  2. 2. The human desire for routine and what a good routine would look like
  3. 3. Why the modern workplace disrupts such routines
  4. 4. The possible downsides of remote working
  5. 5. Possible learnings in leadership, organizations, strategy and transformation

theDesk publishes parts 1 and 2 of the “Guide to working from home”. To download the full guide, check the link at the end of the article.

1. The dimensions of flexible and remote working

The obvious starting point is will employees be productive when working from home during the crisis?

This is a tricky question to answer because there is already a great deal of disagreement in the productivity gains to be made from remote and flexible working. The other things that need to be addressed prior to making any clear predictions are time-spatial job crafting and media job crafting.

Time-spatial job crafting is providing employees with the flexibility to work from different spaces and at different times. In some instances, this improves productivity. In others, it doesn’t. In most cases, when remote working is first offered, people reject it because they are too worried about the optics, and how their manager and team mates might react if they do so. In such cases, productivity does not improve. Until the gap between perception and availability closes, productivity will not shift. It can take more than two years for this gap to reduce to the level at which productivity gains can be observed.

In the current circumstances, however, there is zero gap between the availability of working from home and the perception of working from home, because there is no choice. People simply have to work from home, so they do. Consequently this enforced, no gap situation, offers a learning opportunity to employers looking to cross the remote working bridge to leverage the situation and short-cut the pain of implementation.

However, there is a proviso.

Media job crafting:  Employees working from home in the present crisis are unlikely to have access to appropriate choices of communication media. If their company hasn’t already invested in a technology that enables them to communicate effectively, then no productivity gains will be realized . In fact, with the wrong or too few tools in place, productivity might even suffer. Given the enforced nature of the work-from-home experiment, organizations looking to implement flexible working should take the opportunity to find out from their remote working staff what is missing from the current suite of technologies and then remedy the missing elements. 

2. A natural human routine

One of the impacts of flexible working spaces is the inherent need of employees to have routine and structure in their day. This is highly impacted by any shift to open-plan, flexible or activities-based working. Until they learn to adjust their routines to the new environment, productivity will not improve. It might even go down if old routines remain embedded and new routines never manifest.

In the present enforced work-from-home situation of the Coronavirus crisis, employees will no longer be able to rely on established workplace routines. In order to combat the stress that will cause, following a routine that aligns with the human body clock or circadian rhythm is a possible solution 

  • Morning: the blue-light of morning and low levels of melatonin mean this is the ideal time for focused work. Spend the morning working on core tasks that require concentration. If you have a young child at home and both parents work, share the childcare over a five-hour period. This allows each of you 2.5 hours of uninterrupted, focused work, which will result in high levels of productivity. 
  • Lunch: we humans are social animals, so the enforced lack of social connection throughout the day will increase the likelihood of mental distress. To prevent this, turn your phone off at lunch and eat with your family. 
  • Early Afternoon: after lunch, you will begin to feel more lazy and lethargic. This is the time to do shallow work (emails, admin, messaging, etc), which require little concentration and can be done reasonably well even in distracting environments. 
  • Mid-Afternoon: once your food has digested, your alertness will peak again for an hour or so. This is the time to return to any high-concentration work. Let your children watch a movie and get to it before your alertness fades again.
  • Late-afternoon: you will need social communication if you are to stay energetic and focused, so schedule virtual meetings. Use tools like Skype, Zoom or Hangouts to see and talk to your colleagues. Don’t just talk about work either. Instead include some social chitchat, find out how they are coping and talk about your own difficulties too. 
  • Evening: rest and recuperate, exercise, avoid blue screens, and make sure you get plenty of sleep. These simple rules, which are based on the proven fluctuations of your circadian rhythm, will help you maintain a daily routine while keeping healthy during this crisis. 

If all remote employees can stick to such a schedule, it is likely that productivity will improve. Potentially it will improve significantly. Initial feedback from some of my advisory work in APAC has suggested this is the case.

Engagement might also go up. People who do ‘dirty jobs’, such as garbage collection, bond much more deeply than those who do ‘clean jobs’. Covid-19 has added some dirtiness to all of our jobs. As a consequence, social bonding and associated engagement, even in physical absence, should go up. Again, feedback from advisory work in APAC suggests this is the case.

While it is very possible that productivity will go up when working from home, the ability to creatively solve complex problems will likely go down. This is because it requires collaboration and ongoing learning to do it well.

Discover more about the restrictions of remote work, key take-aways from the current crisis and a piece of expert advice on long-term restructuring in full “Guide to working from home”.

Text by roundPegz fellow: Richard Claydon
Illustration by roundPegz fellow: Jonathan Hood


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