Does Working At Home Really Make People More Productive? by

Working at home is a mixed bag. Sure, you get to skip the commute. You don’t have to dress up for work. And you’ll probably attend fewer meetings.

But then life intervenes, crushing those productivity gains. You have to deal with service people or supervise children. And the distractions mount up, like Netflix and the refrigerator. Or there’s a SWAT team in your backyard, guns drawn, looking for an escaped convict.

That last one has actually happened to me. They thought he might be in the toolshed. And yes – it did make me miss a deadline.

Despite the drama, all those benefits and distractions are just surface noise. The real question – the one your employer wants answered – is if people are actually more productive when they work at home.

In a word: Yes. That’s what the studies show.

The best example of the upsides of working at home (for both employers and employees) is from the Chinese travel website Ctrip. They did an experiment to see if working at home would boost productivity. It got sparkling results.

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(Image source: Giphy)

Here’s the setup: Half of Ctrip’s call center employees were given the option of working from home for nine months. While they telecommuted, half of their co-workers stayed in the office.

The result? The home-based workers completed 13.5% more calls – almost an extra full weekday. They also quit half as often as their cubicled peers. And they reported far higher job satisfaction. Ctrip got another benefit, too: They estimate they saved $1,900 per employee in reduced office space and furniture costs.

Why such great results? The researchers think a big part of the success came from the added quiet of the home workers’ surroundings. The workers also didn’t get distracted by office politics and chatting, even if it was to have a slice of someone’s birthday cake. They also started work earlier, took shorter breaks and lunches, and had fewer sick days. We need to remember that just because we’re in an office doesn’t mean we’re going to be productive:

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(Image source: Giphy)

That all sounds very promising, but does it apply to every office? To every type of job? The call center workers were doing fairly repetitive tasks, from an agreed-upon rule book. What about higher-paid, more complex work?

And there’s the issue of personal control. Are some people wired to give in to Netflix? A study from the University of Calgary says there’s a specific type of person that is. Then there’s the other side of the spectrum, where some people risk working around the clock, simply because they basically live with their work.

Besides people’s default work settings, there’s also the fact that working at home is a learned skill. The first day you attain freedom from the office won’t be like the 200th day since you’ve been free from the office. You’ll have to discover which work habits make you most productive.

For instance, you may need to hire someone to do childcare, even if it’s just for a few hours. Or you might need to set up a project management system so there’s a sense of urgency around your deadlines, now that you’re out of that bustling office.

Some of you may even discover you don’t like working at home. Or working at that idealized coffee shop. You may actually… want to go back to the office.

Working at home is a personal decision. Studies are helpful and all, but people’s work habits and their jobs are individualized. I’d be doing you a disservice to say – “You must escape your office, pronto! Your productivity will double if you do! Here’s all these studies that say so.”

I do know, just for me, that when I worked in an office (still as a freelancer, and as a writer) a few years ago, it crushed my productivity. I was able to write about a third of what I can produce at home. But that’s just me. And I’m a miserably small sample size.

We need to figure this out for you.

To help with that, here’s a list of pros and cons for working at home. If you can figure out where you fall for each item, it might help you make this decision.

PROSCONS
Flexible hours – a side benefit of which can be working when you’re in your most productive hours, and taking downtime when you’re toast. This flexibility, orchestrated well, can result in dramatically better productivity and quality of work.At home workers often find their flexible hours result in them up working all the time.
Fewer meetings. Given that meetings take up about 30 hours a week, cutting even a quarter of those meetings out would create an entire additional day of work.The potential for excessive communication via inefficient systems, (like email for collaborative work).
Easier dress codeSome people do make jokes about the hazards of living in a bathrobe. Honestly, I don’t know any home workers that stay in their bathrobes. They’re far more likely to be in jeans and a comfy sweater. But all right… some of us do wear house slippers.
Way easier on the introverts.At home workers often miss interacting with colleagues. It can be a noticeable downside for some people, presumably the more extroverted.
Fewer distractions – no “cake in the break room” effect.
No commuteDepending on your situation, a saving of 25 minutes per day to 2 or more hours per day. Plus a cost savings of about $2,600 per year.
Your Internet connection better be reliable.
Tax deduction. For U.S. workers, if you have a dedicated area or work, you can deduct a portion of your home expenses.

How much you can deduct is what percent your “office” takes up of your house’s overall square footage. You can deduct that percentage from expenses like mortgage or rent, heating, electric, etc.

People living in small spaces may have a hard time creating a dedicated workspace. They’ll end up working on a couch or a coffee table. That’s OK for some people, but not so much for others.
If you have children, you can look after them.If you have children, you’ll have to look after them.

 

One way to find out for sure

Really want to solve this quandary once and for all? Run a test. A split-test of how much you can get done for, say, one week working at home versus one week working at the office.

You will have to figure out a way to quantify your work. Counting how many pomodoros you can get done might cut it. Or perhaps how many words you can write each week. Or some other measurement you and your boss agree on.

You’ll also have to be pragmatic about the whole test. Because (as you know) how much you can get done varies from week to week. So maybe average out your productivity over four weeks. Then negotiate for a two-week work at home trial.

By the end of the two weeks, you’ll know:

  • If you really can be more productive at home.
  • If you can – or can’t – ignore the siren song of household distractions and disruptions.
  • If you like working at home at all.

That’s a sensible way to actually find out if this will make your life better. It’s a research project specifically designed for you.

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(Image source: Giphy)

 

Conclusion

Working at home may well make people more productive, but it largely depends on the personality and habits of each home worker, and what they do for a living. To really be sure this is a good idea for you, I recommend trying it out for two weeks. If it’s a bust? Meh – now you know. But if it’s a fantastic improvement to your life, now you’ll be willing to fight harder for it.

What do you think?

Do you work at home? Have you ever had a job where you split time between working at home and working in the company office? What was your experience? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

  • Kate

    I worked from home for two years and it worked fine except that I yearned for some ‘colleagues’ to interact with.Then my in-laws moved in with us and then there was nothing that could convince me to continue working from home. If you want to work from home, make sure you are the only one home!

  • pamellaneely

    Oh, Kate… really good point! Thank you.

  • The One and Only

    I wonder if those in the study actually knew they were being supervised for a study, because that might skew the results, know what i mean? Since they would make the effort just to “pass” the test.

    Great stuff as always, Pam. Take care.

  • pamellaneely

    Hey One and Only: I think it would skew the results if the subjects knew they were being supervised. Good point. Now we’ve got the same problem quantum physicists have. 🙂

  • Productivity is the easy part. My work habits at home are no different from my work habits in the office. With the difference being, I work twice, maybe even three time harder, for less pay that’s also inconsistent. At least my old office job was a staedy paycheck. Nevertheless, I keep at it. One of these days I’ll find the “magic formula”.
    Never say die! 🙂

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