Here's What The Research Says About Work-From-Home And Productivity
When WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani ventured on a podcast recently that “the least engaged [employees] are very comfortable working from home," the backlash from social and mainstream media was so swift and vitriolic that he soon issued a clarification on LinkedIn, apologising and clarifying that he had not meant to denigrate people who choose to work from home.
But while he sought to explain himself more clearly, he didn’t walk back from what he said, because he felt he had a weapon on his side: evidence and data. Mathrani had been citing a study commissioned by WeWork of 2,000 employees and C-suite execs into how workers feel about different types of work environments.
As government guidance changes and working from home becomes less mandatory in countries like the U.S. and UK, the debate about the best way for companies to manage their workforces and the balance between working from homes and offices is heating up.
And those like Mathrani with skin in the game are increasingly commissioning or citing studies into where employees want to work in future, where their employers want them to work, and how productive they are in these various locations. Whether undertaken by academics, market research firms, tech companies or employers themselves, these studies are legion, and they will play a big role in determining how one of the huge societal shifts that will come out of the coronavirus pandemic, how and where we work, will play out over the coming months and years.
Bisnow dived into the findings of these surveys to see exactly what they tell us about the future of work. They look at factors ranging from commuting patterns to childcare regimes, office chairs to the performance of high-level chess players. There are too many to read all of them, but a sample of some of those cited most highlight something which is obvious but often overlooked: Their findings are often deeply conflicting, and you can find a study to support just about any position you want to take in this debate.
A prime example of this can be found in two studies conducted by academics renowned for their past writings on employee productivity, workplace culture and the impact that can have on the economy as a whole, two studies that arrive at almost diametrically opposite conclusions.
In their working paper ‘Why Working From Home Will Stick,’ Jose Maria Barrero of the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, Nicholas Bloom of Stanford and Steven J. Davis of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Hoover Institution estimated that the amount of work undertaken from home in the U.S. will rise from about 5% before the pandemic to about 20% after the pandemic. They surveyed 30,000 U.S. workers multiple times and asked them to report on how much they were working from home and how productive they were.
They predict this will provide a 4.6% productivity boost for the economy. That will come because workers will spend about 435 million fewer hours commuting each month, and they estimate about a third of that time will be given over to work, giving a productivity boost. On top of that, the paper argued that for some workers doing some tasks, working at home is more productive than being in an office, and combined with the time saved commuting, the U.S. will get that nearly 5% bump in productivity.
“We are not saying that 20% of the workforce is going to be working from home five days a week,” Barrero told Bisnow. “It is predominately going to be a hybrid way of working.”
He said conventional methods of measuring productivity ignore the time saved on commuting, which makes up the most significant part of the boost in productivity he and his fellow researchers anticipate.
That line of argument is supported by other studies. Data from workplace experience adviser Leesman found that many workers preferred doing big chunks of their job at home compared to being in the office.
“It turns out that when you look at the data on average, the home, which is designed for living in, is better at supporting work than the office, which is designed for working in,” Leesman Chief Insights and Research Officer Peggie Rothe said.
Leesman surveys about 180,000 workers regularly on how well their home and office environment supports different types of work. And while the mantra among bosses and real estate execs is that the office fosters creativity and collaboration, it scores low on the ability to have private conversations and think creatively.
Rothe said the scores given to home working and office working have been broadly consistent since the start of the pandemic, which could be seen as countering the idea that as workers have spent more time at home they have started to crave going back to the office.
But another academic study supports a counterargument.
A working paper from Michael Gibbs of the University of Chicago & IZA and Friederike Mengel and Christoph Siemroth from the University of Essex in the UK found that productivity has fallen 20% during the pandemic, if you measure it by the output of the average worker in the average hour. Output went up, they said, but only because the average employee has worked 30% longer during the pandemic, including doing 18% more work outside normal business hours.
More time was spent in pre-organised meetings, and there was less time available for uninterrupted work. Workers with kids at home did more extra work than those without, and women did more extra work than men, the study found.
The study used data on output provided by an anonymous company with 10,000 staff, rather than survey data, so the results may be skewed by the culture and work style of that specific firm.
In some ways the studies could be seen to be saying the same thing: We will do more work in the future, which will increase output, but we won’t actually get more productive, although the study led by Barrero does argue that we will become more productive through doing some tasks at home.
A paper produced by IZA World of Labor, an online platform studying labour market issues, supports the idea that working from home creates problems when it comes to certain types of work, and could be less productive. It draws a potential parallel between chess players and workers doing creative or intellectual jobs that require significant thought.
Academics Steffen Künn and Christian Seel from Maastricht University and Dainis Zegners from the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University analysed the moves made by elite chess players when playing online versus the moves they made playing in live tournaments. They found that players made more errors when playing online versus playing live and attributed this to the competitive and higher-pressure environment of a live event spurring players to perform better.
“Carrying this over to a work setting, the findings for chess imply that the very fact that, in the home office, workers might not experience the same pressure as in a real-work environment (sitting together with co-workers or seeing clients face-to-face) can result in a drop in cognitive performance,” they wrote. “For employers and workers, this is an important factor to consider when comparing the benefits of a permanent home office next to noise and distraction levels (which were low both for online and offline chess), to reductions in the costs of operating office space, and to long-term consequences on well-being of employees.”
Rothe said Leesman’s findings showed that the more complex the role a worker has, demanding a wide variety of different tasks and tasks that require complex thought, the less likely they were to say that working from home adequately supported their needs.
There does seem to be some consensus between studies of different stripes, those undertaken by both academic and commercial organisations. Those who are senior and have been at an organisation for longer may be more successful than their junior peers at working from home as they already have networks in place among colleagues and peers. Higher earners are also more likely to feel productive working at home, partly, as Rothe pointed out, because they are more likely to be able to find a dedicated place to work in their house, allowing solitude, rather than having to work on the dining room table with housemates making noise in the background.
As for Mathrani, the WeWork study he cited was conducted by Workplace Intelligence and Savanta, interviewed 1,000 C-suite and 1,000 non-C-suite U.S. employees, and the participants didn’t know the survey had been commissioned by WeWork.
The study said employees who identified themselves as satisfied and engaged want to work from other locations (like flexible offices) 37% of the time, from home 27% of the time and from HQ 36% of the time. Workers with low satisfaction and engagement want to spend just 17% of their time at other locations, 46% of their time at home and 37% of their time at an HQ.
The report produced takes that analysis a step further in a section entitled “A hybrid approach is linked to better workplace outcomes.” It said before and during the pandemic, highly satisfied, highly engaged employees have spent 50% more time in locations like satellite offices, coworking spaces and public spaces and about one-third less time at their company HQ than their less satisfied, less engaged colleagues.
For employers, the message is clear, the report maintains. Employees who report high levels of positive work-related sentiments have had access to hybrid arrangements for some time. But after the pandemic, people’s desire for hybrid will increase — and employers who don’t offer hybrid options will be missing out on an opportunity to improve key business outcomes.
But that is to confuse correlation with causation. The more engaged employees might have had more access to a variety of workspaces, but it isn’t necessarily true that variety of workspaces has made them more engaged.
The office-working and office-owning world is digging for answers on what the future of work will be and what will engage employees the most. Unfortunately, turning to research may not really help — the data is there to back you up, no matter which way you lean.