Does working from home improve productivity?

Office worker
Chris Sheedy By Chris Sheedy, CA Today

17 April 2018

Do you work from home? How do you feel it affects your productivity? Is it a positive or negative factor? Chris Sheedy looked at the studies.

Web business Yahoo earned global headlines early in 2013 when its HR manager sent a memo out to all staff that said working from home was no longer allowed.

Many employees were abusing the system, managers believed, slacking off or working on side projects whilst being paid full-time wages. Years later, CEO Marissa Mayer was still fielding questions from the media on the topic. “I hope it’s not my legacy,” she said to an interviewer in 2015.

Marissa’s policy was a surprise, coming at a time when leading managers were seen to be freeing their staff, for the purposes of productivity and work/life balance, from the office space.

More recently, IBM, which develops and markets collaboration software that allows staff members at client businesses to work remotely, somewhat ironically also slashed its work-from-home policy.

Such moves by these businesses and others have caused some to question whether they are correct. Is working from home a productivity panacea or corporate chaos?

Where’s the benefit in working from home?

As is so often the case, experts say the only true answer is ‘it depends’. Consider a study by Professor of Economics, Nicholas Bloom, reported in 2014, which separated the staff of a travel website call centre into a group that worked from home and a group that worked from a corporate office.

During the nine-month period the telecommuters were not only more productive, but perhaps predictably they were also less likely to resign. Why? Because they were happier.

Those working from home also took 13.5% more calls thanks to a quieter workplace.

The company’s original reason behind allowing workplace flexibility was to save money on furniture and space, estimated at around US$1,900 per staff member during the nine-month test period.

Instead, those working from home also took 13.5% more calls thanks to a quieter workplace and the fact that those at home worked longer because they had no commute and a relative lack of distractions - and took shorter breaks.

Plus, the at-home staff rarely needed sick days. Those who work from home, it seems, are super-staff.

The flip-side of the coin

But this type of work, Nicholas pointed out in a Harvard Business Review report, was easily measured and simple to perform remotely. In a business with lower morale and in a situation where productivity was more difficult to measure, it is possible that the experience for the company may not be as positive.

“The more robotic the work, the greater the benefits, we think,” he said.

Remove the positive culture from a team and any improvements will fast disappear.

Another study by workplace analytics business Humanyze, in partnership with an MIT researcher, found sales teams that interacted regularly with each other in person performed better than those that worked remotely.

The difference here, the researcher said, was that individuals in a sales team learn from each other, creating an environment of constant improvement. Once again, of course, such a result is dependent upon the office being a place of high morale. Remove the positive culture from a team and any improvements will fast disappear.

What is the answer, then?

It is somewhere in the middle. Flexibility is undoubtedly a good thing for happiness, but it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing-at-all. A study by employee engagement platform provider TINYpulse called What Leaders Need To Know About Remote Workers found that remote workers are significantly happier than their office-bound colleagues.

But perhaps working from home one or two days a week is better than working from home full-time, or not at all.

The most important and challenging factor is the creation of an environment that is conducive to productivity.

The TINYpulse study also found that remote workers feel more valued and more productive. More than 50% of workers surveyed said they were in contact with their manager once or more per day, highlighting the vital nature of regular, structured communication and clear goal-setting.

However, the most important and challenging factor, one that relates in one way or another to all research done on this topic, is the creation of an environment that is conducive to productivity and innovation for staff while they are at the office.

Without positive organisational culture and morale, the question of whether staff should work from home or not is meaningless.

About the author

Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning HeraldVirgin Australia VoyeurThe Australian MagazineGQIn The BlackCadillac, Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.


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