Recent research on productivity has heralded everything from flexible schedules to napping to exercise breaks to reasonable hours as the latest “win-win” for employers and employees. Could working from home be next? Some assume working remotely is really all lounging on the couch and watching TV, but it could be just the opposite. Preliminary studies have shown, for example, excessive commutes lead to greater job burnout, and allowing employees to work from home occasionally can encourage significant company growth.
Still, many disagree on the impact of working remotely on productivity levels, so scholars at Stanford decided to run an experiment. The findings of the 2014 Ctrip study suggest that people working full time from home are about 13% more efficient. If you’d like to start working from home and anticipate trouble convincing your boss or other naysayers, consider bringing up this study.
Professor Nicholas Bloom, one of the study’s authors, claims the work-from-home experiment, which lasted nine months, saved the company $1,900 per employee. This factors in savings on office space, higher performance, and fewer people quitting. The Chinese travel website Ctrip divided 249 call center workers into a control group, whose members continued working at the office, and a group of employees who moved to working from home full time. Since call center work is both easily measured and easily performed remotely, it was a logical choice for the research at hand. However, it is reasonable to assume that productivity changes could be vastly different depending on the type of work being performed.
In any industry or job position, there will likely be employees not well-suited for remote work. “Not everybody wants to or is disciplined enough to,” Bloom explained in an interview with Harvard Business Review. “At Ctrip, it was a self-selected group, so they were all motivated to work from home effectively, and that’s how it should be. Some people opted out after the nine months were up — and they tended to be the poorest performers of the remote workers.” At the conclusion of the study, Ctrip offered workers the choice of working from home or at the office, and in the self-selected group of home workers, productivity rose by 22%.
The “why” question is where the study’s findings get more interesting. Assuming one can take the experiment at Ctrip as evidence that working from home increases productivity, the reasons behind the trend are less quantifiable. While many critics say working from home provides workers with too many distractions, Bloom contends that the office is much worse in this regard. “Offices are actually incredibly distracting places,” Bloom said. He attributes one-third of the productivity increase to a quieter environment for home-based workers, a distinct advantage if your job is to make phone calls all day. The other two-thirds he attributes to people at home simply working more hours. People in the work-from-home group used less sick time, started work earlier, took shorter breaks, and worked until the very end of the day.
This begs an important question: Does it count as increased productivity if the workers are simply working additional hours? In other words, how much of the productivity boost occurred because home-based workers were actually more efficient with their time?
At this point, it’s impossible to know for sure. Bloom’s best guesses as to the “why” question are very plausible, but perhaps the self-selection element was even more instrumental. There are likely many invisible factors at work too. An article in Quartz points out that one of the most notable benefits of working from home is the ability to control your own environment. You can get up and take a quick exercise break, switch from sitting to standing with ease, have all your own food at your disposal, and experience the joy of an open window — a rarity in most corporate office environments. Remote workers often remark that they are simply more comfortable at home, from their clothes to the temperature in the room, and that this comfort helps them focus.
For others, too much comfort could be a hindrance to getting things accomplished. That’s why the work-from-home issue is so interesting and warrants more research. Ultimately, some people may simply lack the discipline or the desire to move their work into their homes. The Ctrip study was an informative and encouraging step in the right direction, especially for its emphasis on employee-driven decision-making. New experiments testing other job types will give us even more clarity as the debate continues.
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