Who to believe about productivity – employees or managers?

By Sue Williamson

February 15, 2022

Two business women in white jackets
Managers and employees perceive WFH productivity differently. (velimir/Adone)

Managers and employees have different perceptions of how productive employees are when working from home. Further, our research shows that managers’ perceptions have changed over the past two years.

We surveyed Australian public sector employees in 2021 and 2020 about working from home. In 2021, almost three-in-five employees stated their productivity was higher when working from home than in the office. Two-thirds of managers, however, considered their team’s productivity was about the same.

Further, in our previous survey, more managers believed their teams’ productivity had increased. How can these discrepancies be explained?

The decrease may be attributable to reduced work intensification once the initial burst of work at the start of the pandemic subsided. Emerging literature has identified a phenomenon known as ‘panic productivity’ – the pandemic crisis drove people to work harder, and productivity increased. Throughout 2021, however, employees became fatigued and the initial burst of productivity may have waned.

As one respondent told us: “initially, at the beginning of COVID I was more productive, but it’s exhausting to keep up that pace and [productivity] is now about normal”.

Managers told us their teams were fatigued. More than half of the written comments provided by managers in our latest survey mention negative impacts of working from home on their staff. Many managers identified ‘COVID-fatigue’, with employees feeling exhausted and burnt out.

COVID-fatigue was evident with many of our survey respondents. One respondent told us “…I’m just not myself working from home and it stresses me out. I get less done, I feel lazy and guilty and my brain gets foggy and less able to process complex issues. I don’t know what this is. It doesn’t seem like depression or anxiety or burnout but my mental health is definitely not as good as it was”.

Employees may also consider they’re more productive, as some worked longer hours when working at home, even though working more is not a measure of increased productivity. A third of the 2021 respondents stated they worked more hours than in pre-pandemic times, compared with 28% of respondents in 2020. More than one-in-ten employees worked outside their usual working hours, due to management expectation or workloads. This number has almost doubled since 2020.

More than 90% of public sector employees told us they wanted to spend some part of their working week at home. The most preferred arrangement is to spend three days a week working from home, with over a fifth of respondents stating this was their preferred working arrangement. Working some of the week at home and some at the employers’ premises is known as ‘hybrid working’. This form of working is becoming increasingly popular.

As hybrid working arrangements become more entrenched in many public sector agencies, agencies and managers would do well to not only monitor workloads to prevent burnout, but also assess the physical workspace. Many respondents stated they wanted to work from home due to their home having fewer distractions, and also being quieter. The noise in open-plan offices was a distraction for some respondents.

Many factors influence levels of productivity – including noise and disruptions, levels of employee motivation, team cohesion, and autonomy. Public sector productivity is also notoriously difficult to quantify. One thing is clear, however – for levels of productivity to be at least maintained, employee wellbeing is key.  

“Working from Home: The future of work is hybrid” will be launched on 15 February. The Community and Public Sector Union partnered on this research with Associate Professor Sue Williamson from UNSW Canberra and Professor Linda Colley from CQUniversity.


Working from home could be a radical reform, or productivity disaster. We should be finding out

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