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Are you working from home, or living at work?

Written by Mukul Chopra

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August 19, 2020

Contrary to what many experts believed when the great global “work from home” experiment was suddenly unleashed upon us in 2020; six months on, it does not seem like we have arrived at the Shangri-La of telecommuting and flexible work. Many thought that having saved so many hours from long commutes to work, we would finally now have free time for all the things we have always wanted to do.

Surprisingly, the reverse seems to be true. Evidence suggests we are working more at home compared to when we were in the office!

One study by the National Bureau of Economic Research which analyzed 3.14 million users from 21,000 companies, found that meetings went up 12.9% and the average workday went up by 48.5 minutes. Microsoft found that in one group, three times as many of their employees are now working on weekends!

Why are we working more at home?

One of the reasons being cited for this increase is that most people have nowhere to go and being stuck at home, they just end up working more. Others have blamed their newly accessible home office, which they pass umpteen times a day, and just cannot help a cursory ‘check’ on the email, which somehow turns into hours of work, and less overall downtime. The fragile job market has also put additional pressure on workers to spend more time at work and continuously show their value, lest they be part of any planned layoffs. 

Stress and Focus

The truth is, this increase in work hours – together with the stress related to the pandemic – has large swaths of the employee base feeling burnt out. The anxiety is compounded when you consider that many of those working from home, are also educating their children, while simultaneously trying to keep their kids tethered to their homes and prevent them from getting infected.

We are all struggling with focus too. In laboratory experiments, there is evidence suggesting that being frequently interrupted, can have an impact on the quality of work. It takes 20 minutes for a normal person to refocus on the task after an interruption.  And, due to the pandemic, we are all juggling many more tasks.

Many employers are seeing a noticeable and concerning rise in stress levels in their employees and have already started making adjustments to help. Goldman Sachs added 10 extra days of family leave. Microsoft added 12 weeks of parental leave and Starbucks employees now have 20 free therapy sessions. Meditation apps like Calm and Journey are now part of the employee benefits that companies are offering so that their workers can destress. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) does mandate enhanced employee rights for paid leave, but one estimate suggests that only 17% of private-sector employees are covered.

Microsoft’s Experience

Microsoft conducted what amounts to a deep dive into how a 350-person Microsoft team in the USA adapted and performed under the pandemic’s remote work conditions. Some of their findings:

  • 22% more meetings of 30 minutes or less and 11% fewer meetings of more than an hour. So, more frequent shorter meetings, and this occurred organically, without any mandates from management.
  • Interestingly, meetings also moved from the morning at 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. window to the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. afternoon window. Pre-pandemic, meetings were earlier in the day, and focused work was being done in the afternoons. Post-pandemic, it was reversed.
  • Managers spent 115% more time on instant messages, ostensibly to have increased touchpoints with their teams instead of hallway conversations, and informal office gatherings. Many managers increased their one-on-ones with their staff too.
  • The pre-pandemic fall-off in communications during lunch hours was also reduced. Post pandemic more people worked over lunch while at home.
  • Due to the increase in meetings, one team decided to make Fridays meetings free and designated it “Recharge Fridays” as an antidote to the always-on model that seemed to be burning out employees.
  • Microsoft has also seen that in countries where their workforce is slowly returning to the office, these post-pandemic changes in behavior, have survived.
  • It appears there is a new normal, regardless of where you work.

The “work from anywhere” trend

With technology and collaboration tools for remote employees in place, companies are not seeing a productivity decline, and hence many are now moving permanently to a “work from anywhere” mode. Siemens just announced that 140,000 of its employees can now work from anywhere, as did Twitter, Shopify, Atlassian, Tanium, Coinbase, and many others. Facebook CEO, Zuckerberg thinks that as many as 50% of Facebook’s staff of 52,000 could be working remotely soon. These trends are so strong that rents in San Francisco, one of the more expensive cities in the world, are falling as tech companies are moving to a dispersed home-based workforce.

Paul McDonald, senior executive director at staffing firm Robert Half International says that by expanding the geography, “You are able to tap into a pool of candidates that’s greater than what the company may have looked at before.” A distinct advantage for some companies. Glassdoor, the job posting site, says its remote job openings are up 28.3% from a year ago, even while overall listings are down 23%.

However, it would be wrong to think that working from home is a panacea. Many employees feel a sense of isolation, they must deal with many distractions at home, and many have difficulty maintaining working relationships with their colleagues.

It is not just employers who may be taking advantage of the new work from anywhere paradigm. Consider the story of enterprising “Bob”, a software developer, who is a remote worker, outsourced his job to China,and paid someone a portion of his salary to do 100% of the work, while he spent his own time at home watching cat videos!

If you can do your job from anywhere, can anyone do your job, without your employer noticing? This is occurring more frequently than you might think. It may take a while for the dust to settle on this experiment.

To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work from Home

The study: Nicholas Bloom and graduate student James Liang, who is also a cofounder of the Chinese travel website Ctrip, gave the staff at Ctrip’s call center the opportunity to volunteer to work from home for nine months. Half the volunteers were allowed to telecommute; the rest remained in the office as a control group. Survey responses and performance data collected at the conclusion of the study revealed that, in comparison with the employees who came into the office, the at-home workers were not only happier and less likely to quit but also more productive.

A Significant Improvement in Performance

The challenge: Should more of us be doing our jobs in our pajamas? Would the performance of employees improve if companies let them stay home? Professor Bloom, defend your research.

Bloom: The results we saw at Ctrip blew me away. Ctrip was thinking that it could save money on space and furniture if people worked from home and that the savings would outweigh the productivity hit it would take when employees left the discipline of the office environment. Instead, we found that people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than the staff in the office did—meaning that Ctrip got almost an extra workday a week out of them. They also quit at half the rate of people in the office—way beyond what we anticipated. And predictably, at-home workers reported much higher job satisfaction.

HBR: And how much did Ctrip save on furniture and space?

It estimated that it saved $1,900 per employee for the nine months.

Lower attrition rates make sense—working from home gives you more flexibility if you have kids and so forth—but how do you explain the productivity increases? Why would people get more done out of the office?

One-third of the productivity increase, we think, was due to having a quieter environment, which makes it easier to process calls. At home, people don’t experience what we call the “cake in the break room” effect. Offices are incredibly distracting places. The other two-thirds can be attributed to the fact that the people at home worked more hours. They started earlier, took shorter breaks, and worked until the end of the day. They had no commute. They didn’t run errands at lunch. Sick days for employees working from home plummeted. Search “working remotely” on the web, and everything that comes up will be super negative and say that telecommuters don’t work as hard as people in the office. But actually, it’s quite the opposite.

So Marissa Mayer, who famously banned working from home at Yahoo last year, was wrong?

It’s not so simple. There are lots of factors that could lead to such a ban, including a culture where remote workers tend to be slacking because of low morale. Also, we were studying call center work, which is easily measured and easily performed remotely.

Did workers know they were being measured for productivity? Could there have been a grace period when they were trying to prove that working at home works, after which their efforts tailed off?

That’s an important concern. Ctrip tried to address it by running the experiment for nine months. The positive impact of working from home was pretty constant over that entire period, suggesting that it wasn’t driven just by some initial burst of enthusiasm.

Will knowledge and creative workers also be more productive at home?

The more robotic the work, the greater the benefits, we think. More research needs to be done on creative work and teamwork, but the evidence still suggests that with most jobs, a good rule of thumb is to let employees have one to two days a week at home. It’s hugely beneficial to their well-being, helps you attract talent, and lowers attrition. JetBlue allows folks to work as far as three hours from headquarters—close enough to come in now and again but a much bigger radius from which it can draw applicants. When I asked the people at JetBlue about this policy, they said it helped them gain access to educated, high-ability mothers who wanted flexibility in their jobs. The airline believes this policy has improved the quality of its workforce.

Who else likes the work-from-home option?

People who have established social lives—older workers, married workers, parents. We found that the younger workers whose social lives are more connected to the office tend to not want to work from home as much. Right now the employees who spend significant amounts of time working from home are on either end of the income spectrum: solitary, per-hour workers like call center reps, proofreaders, and developers, whose output can be easily tracked; or professionals and senior managers, who presumably are highly self-motivated.

Is there anyone who can’t or shouldn’t work from home?

Absolutely. Not everybody wants to or is disciplined enough to. 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. They had tried it and figured out that it wasn’t right for them. But the company still ended up with the best, most motivated home-based workforce.

I can see managers resisting these findings because it’s harder to feel in control of remote workers.

It’s in middle management where there’s resistance.

How do you overcome that?

One of the reasons Ctrip did its experiment was to persuade some skeptical managers that flexible work arrangements wouldn’t hinder business performance—to have data that proved the case. I tell executives all the time to exploit natural opportunities—for example, severe weather that prevents people from getting to the office—to measure how productive employees can be at home. Any disruption that offers a chance to have people work remotely is an opportunity to see how effective they are off-site.

Having every employee working from home two days a week sounds chaotic. How do you schedule a meeting?

There are two valid ways to handle the problem: One is to rotate the days at home so that a certain percentage of workers are always in the office. That’s the way to go if you’re focused on saving space and reducing your real estate costs. The other option is to schedule mandatory in-the-office days. That way there’s no confusion about when you can access staffers in person. There are pros and cons to each.

I’m starting to wish I had interviewed you in my underwear while sitting at my kitchen table. Maybe it would have been a better interview.

Just because you work at home doesn’t mean you can’t get dressed. But sure, next month, do the “Defend Your Research” interview from home and compare the results. Nothing beats testing.

Interview by Scott Berinato

A version of this article appeared in the January–February 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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