The productivity of remote workers has been in debate for longer than remote work became popular. In fact, the phrase “phoning it in,” is often used to accuse someone of an insincere or insufficient effort, and evolved in reference to workers transmitting messages by telephone, rather than in person.
Thankfully, today’s work-from-home capabilities are much more sophisticated than simply carrying on conversations over the phone. We have access to email, chat, video conferences, cloud collaboration software, and dozens of other technologies that now make it possible for almost any office job to be done completely and remotely. The American workplace is changing to reflect these capabilities; as more jobs become tied to computers and more millennials (who embrace new technology readily) enter the workforce, working from home is a rapidly growing trend.
But the question remains: is working from home more productive than working in an office?
Remote workers would immediately tell you yes, while traditional bosses are still more likely to tell you no. So what’s the truth?
Let’s look at the evidence. One of the most popularly cited studies is from 2014, in which the co-founders of Chinese travel website CTrip allowed some of their workers to work remotely on a regular basis, and compared their productivity to their office-bound counterparts. With all other factors being equal, the remote workers ended up making 13.5 percent more calls than their comparable office workers, which is the equivalent of almost a full extra day’s worth of work in a given week. There were some problems with this study, which I’ll address in the next section, but it stands as one of the most powerful examples of remote worker productivity in action.
According to a 2016 survey of American remote workers, about 91 percent of people who work from home feel that they’re more productive than when they’re in an office. This is a self-reporting survey, which means it’s probably less accurate than an experimenter or supervisor evaluation would be, but it’s an overwhelming number that shouldn’t be ignored. The same survey found that remote workers were more satisfied with their jobs, and happier overall.
Back in 2006, before the rise of smartphone technology and better communication apps, Best Buy introduced a flexible work program that ended up seeing a 35 percent jump in employee productivity. A ConnectSolutions study also found that 77 percent of remote workers get more done in fewer hours thanks to fewer distractions like meetings, conversations, and noisy coworkers.
The Association for Psychological Science conducted a more thorough evaluation, citing a number of different reports to uncover the truest model possible for remote work. Their findings? The effectiveness of a work-from-home program isn’t a given. Instead, it’s tied to the way the program is executed, and the specific needs of the organization, the individual, and the circumstances. For example, some positions require more face-to-face interaction, and sometimes, physical meetings are borderline necessary. In addition, some people are just more suited to working from home than others.
The majority of these studies seem to suggest that working from home is more productive, so why aren’t more businesses allowing it? The truth isn’t so simple, and these complicating factors demonstrate why:
- Defining productivity. One person’s definition of productivity may not equate to another’s. Jobs that focus on measurable output, such as outbound phone calls, emails sent, or data gathered may be able to provide a quantitative figure, but that doesn’t account for quality of work.
- Limited evidence. Even though there have been many studies conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of working from home, remote work is still new, and we’re working with limited evidence.
- Remote worker bias. People who like working from home are more likely to intentionally work harder to prove that working from home is a benefit to their employer. In addition, remote workers who enjoy their positions are liable to self-report an increase in productivity, regardless of whether that increase actually exists. Studying remote employees will always results in these biases, even if measured by an outside authority.
- Different types of work. Call center work is much different than other types of work. What results in an increase in productivity for one position won’t necessarily bear the same increase for another position. Some positions simply can’t be done from home (at least for now).
- Long-term variables. Most of these studies have taken place over the course of a few months, at most. What we currently lack is a long-term study of productivity. New remote workers may be thrilled to get started, but how do their morale, productivity, and communication skills change over the course of several years?
- Individual differences. Some people are better remote workers than others, thanks to their discipline, willpower, home environment, or personal preferences.
The bottom line is that working from home can make a worker more productive, but that isn’t a guarantee. However, it’s safe to say that, according to studies, as long as the job is one that can be performed from home, most people are more productive when working from home, but that productivity is strongly subject to the policies put in place by the employer.
You also have to remember that raw productivity isn’t the only benefit gained from having a work-from-home policy. Having employees work from home can save businesses thousands of dollars per month (per employee) depending on office expenses, and could also raise employee morale, improving retention and collaboration. On top of that, remote workers take fewer sick days and less vacation time, giving them more work days overall.
Despite the evidence cited in numerous studies, the debate will continue. Working from home isn’t an option for every job, but there’s clear evidence that it can have major advantages in the right applications and with the right workers.