What If Working From Home Goes on … Forever?, asks science and technology journalist Clive Thompson in the title of his June 9 NY Times Magazine article. “The coronavirus crisis is forcing white-collar America to reconsider nearly every aspect of office life. Some practices now seem to be wastes of time, happily discarded; others seem to be unexpectedly crucial, and impossible to replicate online. For workers wondering right now if they’re ever going back to the office, the most honest answer is this: Even if they do, the office might never be the same.”
A recent survey found that of the 56% of respondents employed pre-Covid-19, half were working from home, – 35% having recently switched to working from home, while another 15% were already doing so pre-Covid; 37% continued to commute to work, and 10% had been recently laid-off or furloughed. The survey was based on two separate national samples of US data, – one which gathered 25,000 responses in early April, and the second another 25,000 responses in early May.
Thompson’s article cites the experience of Accenture, which has around 500,000 employees in more than 200 cities in 120 countries. Before the pandemic, no more than 10% worked remotely on any given day. But, by the middle of March, nearly all were asked to work from home. Employees adapted quickly, said Accenture’s CTO. The volume of video calls went up by a factor of six while those of audio calls tripled. Despite having to switch from face-to-face to audio and video interactions, overall productivity actually went up as measured by several metrics.
It’s difficult to judge whether the surge in remote work will last. “Home life in a lockdown is much harder than usual,” notes Thompson. “Many workers who live alone are experiencing enforced isolation as an emotional grind… Nearly every parent I spoke to had their fingers crossed that schools and day care would reopen in the fall – at which point remote work might become an option they could choose, as opposed to one they were forced to endure. Assuming that such a day does arrive, it’s possible that quite a few may elect to continue working outside the office.”
Remote work aka telecommuting has been around for decades, but took off in the mid-late 1990s with the explosive growth of the Internet. Some even predicted that the Internet would lead to the decline of cities, because it would enable people to work, be in touch with friends and colleagues, and shop from home. Why would anyone choose to live in an expensive and crowded metropolitan area, when they could live in a more affordable, less stressful, potentially healthier location.
“Research conducted before the pandemic found that remote work offers significant positive effects for both employee and employer,” said Thompson. “What Accenture discovered is not, it seems, a fluke: Output often rises when people work remotely.” His article discussed two separate productivity case studies, one focused on working from home (WFH), the second on working from anywhere (WFA). Research on remote work has dealt largely with WFH programs, in which employees generally live within commuting distance of the office. Such programs offer workers temporal flexibility, including reduced commute times, and improved work-life balance.
But, how effective is working from home? Stanford researchers addressed this question in a 2013 paper based on a 9-month experiment conducted with CTrip, – China’s largest travel agency, since renamed trip.com. CTrip asked nearly 1000 employees in their Shanghai call center if they would be interested in working from home four days a week, with the fifth day in the office as usual. About half the employees were interested, – especially those who had children and long commutes to work, – and approximately 250 qualified by virtue of having at least six months tenure, as well as broadband access and a private room in which they could work at home. CTrip then held a lottery draw, and those with even-numbered birthdays were selected for the experiment while the rest continued to work from the office as a control group.
“Home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which about 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick-days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter working environment),” said the paper. “Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction and experienced less turnover, but their promotion rate conditional on performance fell. Due to the success of the experiment, CTrip rolled-out the WFH option to the whole firm and allowed the experimental employees to re-select between the home or office. Interestingly, over half of them switched, which led to the gains from WFH almost doubling to 22%.”
How does working from anywhere (WFA) compare to working from home (WFH)? A 2018 paper evaluated the difference in productivity between WFH and WFA programs, based on the experiences of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). In 2006, the USPTO introduced a voluntary WFH program with an initial group of 500 patent examiners, allowing eligible employees to work from home up to four days per week. Then in 2012, the USPTO launched a pilot WFA program, now allowing patent examiners to live anywhere. Employees were eligible for the WFA pilot if they were already enrolled in WFH, lived over 50 miles from the USPTO’s headquarters in Northern Virginia, and agreed to waive their rights to be reimbursed for the required trips back to headquarters, which were capped at five per year. Overall, the WFA program led to an additional increase in work output of 4.4% compared to the baseline WFH program.
Working at home can also improve how employees feel about their jobs, said Thompson, citing studies that have shown a positive correlation between telecommuting and job satisfaction. “People tend to prize the greater flexibility in setting their work hours, the additional time with family members, the reduced distractions.”
Besides increasing the productivity and job satisfaction of their employees, another attraction for employers is shrinking real estate costs. The USPTO estimates that they’ve saved over $38 million in headquarters office space. In addition, companies have access to a larger pool of talented employees who may not afford to relocate to expensive cities or prefer not to do so for family or other reasons. “And in the pandemic, they may need to accommodate employees who – even after health authorities reopen their state – don’t want to come back,” added Thompson. “Many will hesitate at the idea of riding a crowded, unventilated elevator to an open office where people are crowded together.”
“The truth, as I heard from many of the newly remote workers I interviewed, is that as much as our offices can be inefficient, productivity-killing spreaders of infectious disease, a lot of people are desperate to get back to them,” wrote Thompson in conclusion. “That’s because office work is more than just straightforward productivity – briskly ticking off to-do items. It also consists of the chemistry and workplace culture that comes from employees’ interacting all day, in ways that are unexpected and often inefficient, like the stray conversations that take place while people are procrastinating or bumping into one another on the way to lunch. During the pandemic, though, many employees worry that this culture is eroding.”