Working at home: is it productive?

Is it more efficient to work at home or come to an office? There’s no consensus because it depends on circumstances, says David Bolchover.
David Bolchover
Jun 28, 2018

Key takeaways:

  • Research on the efficiency of home v office working is inconclusive and often irrelevant when it comes to complex, non-regimented roles.
  • Homeworking aids discrete writing and thinking, is suitable for routine tasks by saving commute time, and boosts satisfaction by easing non-work pressures.
  • The office is better for building working relationships and solving complex, team challenges.
  • An informal and common-sense blend of office and home depending on the worker and the role, is likely to work best.

The debate about the commercial and economic benefits of homeworking is not new, and there seems to be little prospect of consensus. Despite earnest attempts by academics, individual productivity in most white-collar jobs is almost impossible to measure or compare, with surveys on the effectiveness of homeworking likely to prove inconclusive. As a result, attitudes to homeworking continue to be shaped by prevailing fashion, individual prejudices and self-interest.

To be sure, homeworking can free up time by avoiding the lengthy and unpleasant commute, and in some cases can even reduce office costs. But detractors say that these gains are outweighed by numerous benefits of being on site. Sentiment appears to have shifted in favour of the latter view.

By the end of the last decade, almost half of IBM employees worldwide were working remotely, rather than in the office. But in 2017, the company summoned thousands of staff back to the office. ‘There is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun when they are shoulder to shoulder,’ said the company’s marketing director, Michelle Peluso. Similarly, Yahoo! issued a statement in 2013 banning homeworking.

Home truths

However, the research on the issue is sparse, complex and inconclusive. In a 2012 study of a Chinese travel agency call-centre, employees were randomly assigned to work either at home or in the office. Home working led to a 13% performance increase. Around 9 percentage points of this resulted from working more minutes per shift because there were fewer breaks and sick days (a much-reported benefit of homeworking) and 4 percentage points resulted from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter and more convenient working environment).

Performance was principally determined by the number of calls made. Neither the subjectively measured quality of the interaction, nor the conversion rate of the call into customer orders, were affected either way by the employee’s location. Moreover, the call centre model, with its set hours and repetitive functions, is similar to that of a factory rather than more complex office jobs, such as marketing, communications and even in sales that don’t lend themselves to objective measurement on a day to day basis or according to the number of tasks completed.

‘Few office jobs are judged by the number of tasks completed, making it impossible to compare performance of dispersed and co-located employees.’

In the modern workplace, there will be many employees who prefer working in their own environment at home, at close proximity to family and friends, with at least one study reporting their higher job satisfaction and another claiming higher productivity.

On the other hand, one workplace analytics company claimed that sales teams at their European retail banking client perform better when they interact in person. In another survey, homeworkers agreed that when it comes to complex tasks this was better done in the traditional office.

One often-cited reason to oppose homeworking is that managers fear losing control of staff, a particular concern in offices where image, perception and shrewd alliances are the engines of career progress.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Without overwhelming proof one way or another, improvisation, trial and error, bias, and self-interest hold sway. Indeed, more likely, both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. It stands to reason, for example, that a person writing an article or devising a client presentation benefits from fewer interruptions. At the same time, it is essential that the same person is present and engaged during regular meetings that serve to bond a team and solve a complex problem. It’s not uncommon for an employee to do both. And everyone’s particular circumstances and needs are different.

Home working and office working can co-exist, albeit in an informal way, where sometimes it pays to work in the quiet of home, and other times it’s desirable to immerse oneself in the hubbub of the office. The team leader’s aim is to find the optimal blend that best suits each and every executive and enhances the efficiency of every role.

David Bolchover

Writer on management and the workplace. Author of three business books.