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The Remote Work Productivity Tracker: 2020 in Review

Mike Marks January 7, 2021
Aternity's Global Remote Work Productivity tracker series looked at IT and human trends in the enterprise throughout 2020. Here’s what we learned and what we’ll study in 2021.

Shortly after the pandemic began, Aternity began collating and sharing data around how IT performance affects remote work productivity and employee digital experience. In 2020, we released six volumes of the Global Remote Work Productivity Tracker, each with a unique but related focus. The Tracker series is based on data aggregated from millions of employee devices from over 500 global companies. These companies are all using the Aternity Digital Experience Management platform, an enterprise SaaS IT solution. The reports are generated via Aternity’s built-in, advanced analytics and custom reporting capability.

Today, we wanted to take a look back at what we learned from this series in 2020 and how we plan to evolve our research in 2021.

How Aternity measures remote work productivity

Before we do, it’s important to address how Aternity measures employee productivity. In addition to monitoring device health and performance, Aternity automatically discovers and measures the usage and performance of all the business applications on which employees rely for their jobs. In these productivity tracker reports, we use hours of business application use as a proxy for productivity. There are other factors of course. But, given our focus on providing visibility to IT on how application and device performance affects business outcomes, this measure is one that can be directly affected by IT department decisions. With the shift to remote work, IT departments focused on doing everything they could to ensure a productive workforce.

The three phases of reaction to the shift to remote work

As countries around the world transitioned to remote work, and in some cases, back to the office, trends emerged—some predictable and others more surprising. It’s clear now that some businesses will make a permanent shift to remote work, while others will embrace it as an option for their employees—allowing them to hire and retain talent without worrying about geography or the overhead expense of brick-and-mortar offices. Still others will prefer a full return to the office, due to industry dynamics or other factors.

The abrupt shift to remote work required adaptations from employees, IT departments, and network and content providers alike. We also identified three distinct phases of reaction. They followed a distinct pattern:

  1. Panic (mid-March): Employees were sent home with the laptops and applications on-hand. They shared their WiFi with the rest of their family members working and attending school from home. Network congestion increased along with the volume of remote work (not to mention massive increases in media consumed by people suddenly confined to their homes). Application performance suffered, but employees expanded their working hours to keep up.
  2. Fast fixes (next two weeks): Tactical reactions to application and device performance problems produced some improvements. IT teams acquired whatever laptops they could get their hands on and worked to scale and optimize VPNs. Employees enhanced their home WiFi connections when they could. Meanwhile, network and content providers also made reactionary improvements, like reducing screen resolution to alleviate network congestion.
  3. Continuous improvement (May to now): CIOs have begun to plan for long-term “work-from-everywhere” (WFE) as the next normal. As a result, they’re working to optimize application performance for remote work and investing in new devices for employees.

It’s possible that we’ll see some entirely new phases as the vaccine is rolled out globally and case counts go down, allowing some employees to return to the office (though many employers and employees alike may be more comfortable and open to long-term remote work). Time will tell, and we’ll continue to track and report on progress over time.

Below, we’ll share some of the key takeaways from each of 2020’s six remote work productivity trackers, in case you missed them or would like a refresher. At the end, we’ll provide a glimpse into our planned data explorations for 2021. Thanks for reading, and we wish you a productive year to come.

Volume 1 (April 2020): Global Trends in the Shift to Remote Work

In our first volume of the productivity tracker, we found that the increase in hours spent working from home more than offset the drop in hours spent in the office. In other words, the total number of productive hours increased during the early days of pandemic-driven work-from-home (WFH).

This was, obviously, the beginning of the shift to widespread remote work, and we found that it was all about adjustment. Questions swirled around how long it would take to return to pre-outbreak “normal;” in retrospect, the answer may very well be: never.

In this tracker, we explored the differences in trends regionally. Along with the virus, the shift to remote work began in mid-January in China and Hong Kong. Interestingly enough, though European countries began quarantining several days before North America, the shift to remote work had opposite initial effects on each side of the Atlantic. Productivity in Europe declined 8.2%, while it rose 23% in North America. That said, there were certainly differences from country to country across Europe, so it was by no means a one-size-fits-all trend.

remote work productivity, productivity tracker
Initial trends in the share of remote work across global regions, January 6-March 26, 2020.

 

Volume 2 (April 2020): Changing Behavior from Remote Work

Next, we explored how the working day was changing for WFH employees. We discovered that employees had shifted working hours to start later and end later, as they balanced the lack of a commute with the need to organize their children’s care or school.

There were distinct differences between countries and regions when it came to the new workday. In parts of the U.S. with high concentrations of knowledge workers, such as the Northeast and West, the workday shifted about 30-60 minutes as employees started and ended their days later. In the Midwest, however, the workday started much earlier as employees of manufacturing companies in that area aligned their hours with the third shift or European headquarters. In the Southeast and Southwest, changes were less noticeable.

Canada mirrored the U.S. Northeast and West. In Europe, we saw more differences between countries, likely due to a combination of work culture variations and different outbreak patterns.

Volume 3 (May 2020): Application Performance

In Volume 3, we took a close look at one of the key factors in productivity for employees: application performance. We wanted to study the extent to which application performance affected productivity, whether employees were working more hours to compensate for underperforming applications, and where companies might need to invest in IT improvements.

Our data show that home use of heavy-duty business applications such as CAD or call center technology lagged SaaS-delivered productivity apps by two weeks. In other words, it took an extra two weeks to adapt work practices and optimize these applications for heavy remote access as compared to Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc. because of their complexity and traditional client-server architectures.

We also found that, while home workers were spending more time in front of their computers than before, extra hours do not equal increased productivity. This is partly driven by application performance. To measure performance across different types of applications, we measured wait time – the total time that employees spend waiting for applications to respond, or to recover from crashes – as a percentage of total usage time. While cloud applications perform similarly or even better at home vs. in office settings, client-server applications designed for on-premises use saw noticeably degraded performance. In particular, wait time for compute-intensive apps like CAD and analytics programs consumed 10% of total tool usage time, as compared to 0.2% for collaboration apps—making them a major drain on productivity.

remote work productivity, productivity tracker
Comparing the response time of key business activities for different applications. Performance of SaaS-based applications is about the same in the office vs remote, but activities executed by remote workers are significantly slower for client-server applications.

 

Regionally, South America, Africa, and India experienced the worst app performance, with wait times on average twice as long as in Europe. Comparing wait time for collaboration and productivity applications by industry showed that healthcare and legal performed best while education had the worst performance.

Volume 4 (June 2020): The Emergence of Collaboration App Sprawl

In the fourth volume, we captured an updated snapshot of changing collaboration application usage, in which we identified the emergence of “collaboration app sprawl.” With the abrupt shift to remote work, individual employees used multiple collaboration tools to serve similar needs. Managing this sprawl is a headache both for employees, who have to juggle multiple overlapping capabilities, and for IT who are charged with ensuring the quality of service.

There were significant changes in collaboration app usage over a few months, with Microsoft Outlook usage growing 46% from February to June, and Teams usage increasing 894% over the same time period. Teams growth even surpassed that of Zoom during the week of May 4. Our data showed Microsoft’s dominance in the enterprise market. Though Zoom captured much of the initial headlines, for Aternity customers, it’s a Microsoft world. The share of Skype for Business declined from 86% to 45% as Microsoft customers migrated to Teams, whose market share expanded from 11% to 34%. Zoom and Slack usage share were both under 10%.

Skype, Teams, Webex, Zoom, collaboration apps
It’s a Microsoft world in the enterprise market, as companies migrated from Skype for Business to Microsoft Teams. The use of Microsoft collaboration apps dwarfed that of Slack, Zoom, and Webex

 

To underscore this point, Microsoft Teams user numbers jumped from 75 million in April 2020 to 115 million in November 2020. In an attempt to break Microsoft’s tight hold on the enterprise, Salesforce announced an agreement to purchase up-and-comer Slack for about $27.7 billion. 2021 will certainly be an interesting year for collaboration app dynamics.

From a user perspective, it’s interesting to note that collaboration tools were predominantly used for direct 1:1 interactions, as opposed to group calls. Astoundingly, one-on-one communication accounted for 97% of all interactions via collaboration applications for a one-week period in mid-June.

Volume 5 (July 2020): The Next Normal

By July of 2020, we began to see the contours of the “next normal” come into focus. Many companies announced permanent remote work options or signaled intentions to move to a hybrid model, though many did not make any definitive statements. As the world waited to see what would happen from a public health standpoint, business leaders considered the long-term impact of remote work on employee productivity.

In our fifth volume, we explored the “remote work productivity tax.” North America—and more specifically the U.S.—chalked up a noticeable 14% decrease from late March to early July in productivity as the country continued to have the highest remote work percentage globally. This after the U.S. had seen an increase of 23% in productivity in the last two weeks of March. In contrast, European workers returned to the office in greater numbers as their countries managed the pandemic, and experienced a modest 2% increase in productivity. Within Europe though, conditions varied by country. European countries that were predominantly working from home also showed evidence of the remote work productivity decline, while those that returned to the office showed a productivity increase. (Interestingly, the U.K. appeared to buck this trend, with high levels of remote work corresponding to higher productivity.)

remote work productivity, productivity tracker
In the US, overall productivity decreased 14% between February 3 and July 9, 2020 as high levels of remote work were maintained. In Europe, productivity increased by 2% with a significant increase in office-based work.

 

Though it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason, it does seem to be the case, in the U.S at least, that workers are getting less productive the longer remote work continues. It could, of course, also be pandemic-related fatigue. Regardless of the root cause, it’s something executives must contend with as they make plans for what the return to normalcy can and should look like.

Volume 6 (Nov 2020): The Work-from-Everywhere Enterprise

In November of 2020, we released our last tracker of the year and explored how enterprises are planning for the longer term. We found that many had moved from serially extending temporary WFH arrangements to establishing permanent policies.

To better understand this, we polled 100 business leaders about their return to office plans. Notably, 93.4% said they plan to remain remote or adopt a hybrid model. Many companies are granting employees the option to work remotely on a permanent basis, in some cases even offering one-time bonuses to relocate and set up home offices. They are also redesigning offices as collaboration sites, with fewer individual workspaces. And they are reprioritizing tech investments to support digital employee experience in the work-from-everywhere (WFE) enterprise.

For this tracker, we took a deep dive into trends in upgrading to new generations of employee devices and the impact on productivity. We found that use of newer model devices with 8th, 9th, or 10th generation CPUs increased 13.7% versus before pandemic. There was a corresponding 10.8% decline in the use of 6th generation or earlier models, and a 2.9% drop in 7th generation machines.

remote work productivity, productivity tracker
Companies began migrating to newer generation devices in March 2020 as a result of the pandemic.

 

The good news: Employees working on devices with newer generation CPUs spend 37% less time waiting for pages to load vs. those on 6th generation or older devices. This equals a productivity gain of three minutes to an hour per employee per day. In other words, investing in newer generation devices is a smart way to counterbalance the remote work productivity tax.

What’s to come in 2021

2020 threw some serious curveballs at enterprises (and everyone else), and many are still learning, changing and adapting. One of our biggest mantras, and a key takeaway from 2020 is that every employee’s experience matters—not just the “average.” Benchmarking your company’s employee experience with the Aternity Digital Experience Management Quadrant (DEM-Q®) , as described in these trackers, is a helpful tool to see how your business compares to peers from an experience perspective and where there is room for improvement.

Another key lesson learned? Don’t take trends at face value. A decline in productivity may be less about remote work, for example, than about needing to upgrade devices. Study the data in detail and try to stay strategic and nimble about plans for improvement and optimization.

In 2021, we’ll be continuing the series and plan to closely track how the WFE enterprise evolves, especially as the vaccine rolls out around the globe. Inevitably this will impact CXO thinking about when, how, and whether to return to the office or to embrace a remote or hybrid model.  

We’ll also continue our deep focus on application-level data in order to provide insights into which applications foster productivity and collaboration between employees in an office and working remotely. In other words, we’ll be keeping a close eye on the digital employee experience of the hybrid environment. Stay tuned for lots more to come in 2021.

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