Does Working From Home Work?

A snow day for all!
A snow day for all! –iStock

Raise your hand if you’re working from home today.

I can’t see you, because I’m also working from home—on my sofa, in fluffy slippers, with my cat, drinking hot cocoa. Snowpocalypse has left plenty of Bostonians remotely dialing it in today (and maybe tomorrow), but does that mean this week will be any less productive than the one before?

Not necessarily. Despite the fear instilled in the hearts of many managers via Marissa Mayer’s remote employee ban in 2013—which other major companies dutifully followed in suit, and praised its benefits—telecommuters have frequently been found to be more productive than their in-office counterparts. While Mayer went on to address her internal memo, stating the decision was not due to employees’ lack of productivity, but because “they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together,’’ the idea that staffers at home are taking advantage of having no direct management supervision continues to perpetuate concern.

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Two Stanford University professors recently penned a piece for the Harvard Business Review about a study their students conducted with a large Chinese travel agency named Ctrip. The company hoped to reduce turnover and office costs by instilling a work-from-home policy. However, due to concerns about faltering employee productivity (a.k.a. “shirking from home’’), management decided to try the policy out on a test group first.

In a nine-month study conducted with Stanford, Ctrip offered experienced employees at its Shanghai call center the option to dial in remotely four days a week. Those with birthdays on even-numbered days worked according to the new policy, while employees with birthdays on odd-numbered days stayed in office. The company measured productivity through call logs, performance reviews from customers, and actual sales.

After nine months, researchers found a 13 percent increase among work from home staff. This was attributed to fewer breaks and sick days taken by work from home employees. The telecommuting employees also said they benefitted from the quiet environment. Overall, remote workers also had a much lower turnover rate than their in-office counterparts, and they reported much higher work satisfaction levels.

One thing to note: The researchers point out that Ctrip allowed employees to initially volunteer for the work-from-home trial before they were granted permission. This could mean the pool chosen for the trial was more likely to succeed.

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The Stanford team writes:

“We suspect that the most driven employees were more willing to work from home, knowing they could stay focused away from the office, while the more distracted tended to worry about the consequences of sitting all day next to the fridge and the television — the biggest enemies of working from home.’’

Additional research has also pointed to direct business gains from granting work from home privileges, while others look at psychological, financial, and even physical benefits for employees. One recent study from the University of Illinois found that telecommuting employees often worked even harder to create harmonious, successful environments in order to prove their worth to the company. The author notes that the opportunity to work from home may be seen as gained trust between the employee and his or her manager, which could, in turn, lead to improved performance and attitude.

But it’s not all upsides. While most researchers note there isn’t a counter-study that proves productivity goes down when you log in from home, there are still reasons for managers to be skeptical of their staff’s out-of-sight behavior. A 2012 study by Wakefield Research revealed that 43 percent of remote employees admit to watching TV on the clock, while 35 percent do household chores, and 26 percent take naps. And as many as 24 percent admit to having an alcoholic drink, so before you tip into your hot toddy today, don’t become another statistic.

And yes, as Mayer pointed out, collaboration opportunities may suffer, as will bonding experiences that don’t involve GChat, Slack, and Skype.

But then again—the President of the United States works from home all the time. Why shouldn’t you?

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