I came across a summary of a study about working from home recently (Bloom, 2014) that showed some significant and concrete benefits of letting employees work from home. I want to summarize some of the benefits, discuss why they occurred, and list a few of the points of this particular study that should make us wary to believe the effects will apply to everyone.
Productivity Benefits of Working From Home
In a study on call center employees, a group of around 125 were allowed to work from home for nine months doing the same job during the same hours as an in-office control group. The group who worked from home:
- significantly increased their productivity; workers completed 13.5 percent more calls per person on average,
- quit at half the normal rate,
- took fewer sick days,
- started work earlier,
- worked until the end of their shifts,
- took shorter breaks, and
- reported higher job satisfaction.
Having greater job satisfaction probably contributed to the overall productivity, as happy employees are generally more productive. Being less likely to quit may be related to job satisfaction, too.
Reading between the lines, knowing that they starter earlier, worked until the very end of their shifts, and took shorter breaks, we can say they worked a longer duration and made more productive use of their time. Taking fewer sick days also means they worked more.
Why Working From Home Was a Success
In general, there are a few key reasons people benefit from working from home. Flexibility is the primary answer, and it plays out in a number of different ways.
- Childcare issues are easier to mitigate when parents work from home.
- Running errands becomes something that’s easier to work into the day.
- Zero commute time means more personal time overall, whether that’s used for leisure, household and family responsibilities, or both.
- Fewer distractions at home give employees more opportunities to find a rhythm to their work and get into states of flow. (In this article, the authors refer to the “cake in the break room” effect, although in-office distractions can take many forms.
While there were significant and easily measurable positive outcomes in this study, there are a few details about it that will quickly indicate why and how the effects may not apply evenly to everyone who works from home.
- The workers were call center employees. Their jobs are clearly defined and have measurable output: how many calls they complete in a set amount of time.
- Work hours were well defined, with clear start and end times. Some types of work can continue indefinitely, as when people catch up on email in the middle of the night or on the weekends. Call center employees have much less gray area about when to work. In this study, however, at-home employees still began taking calls earlier than office-based employees in this study.
- Employees were self-selected. People volunteered to be a part of the study, but no one was forced into it. Of the people who volunteered, half of them were chosen at random to participate.
- The subjects transitioned to working from home 100 percent of the time. In other work-from-home arrangements, people only work from home on set days. We should question whether occasional work-from-homers develop the same routine and habits of permanent home office employees that make them more productive.
One very important comment on that last point is that the effects were not immediate. A graph of the study shows that in early on in the study, the at-home and in-office workers were about as productive as they had been before, when they were all working in the office. A few weeks later, however, clear differences emerge. Halfway through the study (about four months into it), it looks like there’s no turning back. The at-home group clearly takes more calls.
We’d need more data to prove it, but it seems as if the home employees take a while to find their new groove. But once they establish it, productivity is nearly higher. That’s important for both employers and employees to know. The effects might not be immediate, and it could take even longer to see the effects if the employees are not working remotely 100 percent of the time.
Bloom, N. (2014). “To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work from Home.” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2014. Retrieved Feb. 27, 2017 from https://hbr.org/2014/01/to-raise-productivity-let-more-employees-work-from-home.
Image from Ewan McIntosh, CC.