Working from home is a controversial and largely untested practice that always seems to have mixed results. Does it really make workers happier and more productive? Or do employees who work from home tend to shirk their duties without a manager watching over their shoulder?
Nicholas Bloom and John Roberts of Stanford University set out to answer this question by running a study of Ctrip, the largest travel agency in China. The company had decided to institute an experimental work-from-home policy to curb turnover and reduce office costs, but they wanted to see what effects such a policy would have on employees. What the Stanford researchers discovered by studying the test policy was unexpected.
Ctrip allowed some workers to volunteer for WFH while others were selected through a lottery. The remaining workers remained in the office as a control group. Both groups worked the same shifts, in the same departments, and under the same managers that they did before the experiment. They also used the same computer programs and workflow processes.
By keeping computerized records of when employees were actually working, Ctrip was able to measure the success of their experiment.
By the end of the test period, the performance of the WFH group had gone up dramatically, increasing by 13% over nine months. They worked more minutes during each shift and took fewer breaks and sick breaks. They were more productive per minute because working at home was quieter than working in the office.
The group that worked from home also saw a sharp decrease in staff turnover and an increase in work satisfaction. They were less exhausted at work as well.
The group in the office saw no change in performance, positive or negative.
Ctrip was so impressed by the test policy that it was rolled out as an option for the entire firm. Surprisingly, however, many people from both the work-from-home group and the office group chose working from the office, citing loneliness as a main reason for returning.
Plenty of people who work from home report missing water cooler culture, but there are several ways that home office workers can stay efficient and engaged.
Having a furnished and established home office is a great start. Workers can even move around their furniture periodically when they get bored with their work arrangement, something that’s rarely possible in a cubicle. Moving furniture also prevents permanent indentations from forming in rugs, so it’s a great practice on several levels.
Home workers can also take advantage of freelance communities that meet in person, or online, to stave off loneliness.