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Are companies more productive in a pandemic?

When the online learning company Chegg started working remotely in March, Nathan Schultz, a senior executive, was convinced that productivity would plummet 15% to 20%.

Hoping to keep his employees on task, Schultz tried to recreate the high-touch style of management that had served him well throughout his career. He set up a Slack channel with his two closest deputies, where they began communicating incessantly, even as they spent hours a day in the same Zoom meetings. He began regularly checking in on many of the other members of his team.

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“The first reaction was to smother,” he said. “I was trying to replicate the many touch points you have in the office environment.”

It didn’t work. Schultz himself soon felt burned out, and he could tell that his constant online presence was not very popular with his employees. So he eased off.

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Then something surprising started happening. Projects were completed ahead of schedule. Workers volunteered to take on new tasks. Instead of falling into a rut and losing focus in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Chegg employees became more productive.

When office workers around the world went remote four months ago, many managers feared that productivity would collapse. The distractions of home — from child care to television — would wreak havoc on workdays, they thought.

Some individuals have had a harder time than others working from home, but many companies say productivity has remained at pre-pandemic levels, or even gone up. Without long commutes, small talk with colleagues and leisurely coffees in the break room, many workers — especially those who don’t have to worry about child care — are getting more done.

Companies, too, are discovering that processes and procedures they previously took for granted — from lengthy meetings to regular status updates — are less essential than once imagined. And although some executives are concerned about burnout as working from home continues, they are enjoying the gains for now.

“We’re seeing an increase in productivity,” said Fran Katsoudas, Cisco’s chief people officer.

Most of Cisco’s employees have been working from home for months, and Katsoudas said data showed many were accomplishing more. For example, according to the company’s tracking, customer service representatives are taking more calls and customers are more satisfied with the help they receive.

A Deutsche Bank survey of workers in countries hard hit by the coronavirus found that on average, those in the United States felt they were more productive than before the pandemic, whereas those in Europe felt they were less productive.

At Eventbrite, the engineering team is thriving, while the sales and customer service teams are having a harder time working from home, the chief executive, Julia Hartz, said.

Hartz said that her customer service team worked in a more collaborative manner, and that Eventbrite’s representatives missed being able to trade tips on how to handle different situations.

“It’s never the same call,” she said. “Our office is open. There’s a bullpen-type feel. You can turn your chair around and all face each other and share ideas or share the stress with your co-workers. You can’t do that remotely.”

Business is humming along, but executives said working so hard in isolation could, in the long term, lead to burnout and loneliness and fray corporate culture.

Satya Nadella, the chief executive of Microsoft, lamented the loss of in-person interactions, even as he said productivity was ticking up.

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“How long-lasting is that?” he said of the company’s improved efficiency. “What does burnout look like? What does mental health look like?”

Nadella said he worried that companies like Microsoft were “burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote.”

“What’s the measure for that?” he added.

In Houston, Elysa Nelson, a vice president at Pierpont Communications, a public relations firm, said she had hoped that the transition to remote work might free her up from some of her management duties, allowing her to spend more time focused on clients and less time tending to her more junior colleagues.

But Nelson, who does not have children, said in addition to managing her own clients, she was helping her employees, in a “momlike fashion,” navigate working from home.

“I was hopeful that I would become more productive because they wouldn’t barge into my office all the time,” she said. “But they’re still finding ways, through calls and texts and Slack.”

Douglas Merritt, the chief executive of Splunk, an enterprise software company, questioned whether the appearance of busy remote workers was leading to actual gains.

“There’s a big difference between activity and productivity,” he said. “There’s no doubt that our employee population is not performing at the same level they were.”

Merritt said that after a rush of intensity during the first couple of months of the coronavirus crisis, Splunk employees were adjusting to their new routines. And many of the intangible aspects of office life were, he believes, central to some of his most meaningful work.

“How do you capture the face-to-face body language that you can’t pick up over a Zoom?” Merritt said. “I am craving going back and siting in a conference room.”

Affirm, the payments company, also went through early months of intensity.

“There was a period of high energy, high output, where nothing could stand between you and the tasks you want to accomplish,” said Affirm’s chief executive, Max Levchin, who was a founder of PayPal. “All of us went into this hyper-productivity drive. It was like we were back in a startup.”

Four months into the work-from-home experiment, Levchin said that employees, on balance, felt they were less productive than they had been in the office, but that managers believed their employees were more productive.

Levchin said he was concerned the pace was unsustainable.

“My primary worry productivity-wise is pacing,” he said. “The mangers are telling me that there’s a real possibility of burnout.”

Hoping to prevent that, Affirm recently gave everyone an extra day off.

At Chegg, 86% of employees said their productivity was as good as or better than before, according to an internal survey. They attributed the uptick to not commuting and not having boundaries to the workday.

Recently, Schultz’s team completed a project for Verizon in 15 days that he said would have taken a month during normal times.

“They would have filled their time with going down to our well-accoutremented cafeteria in Silicon Valley,” Schultz said.

Still, he is cognizant that the frenetic pace of work might not last.

“While we may have had a productivity bump in the short term, we need to respect the home and work balance,” he said. “We want to make sure they don’t burn out.”

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c.2020 The New York Times Company

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