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Are you less productive when working from home?

  • Created By  Colleen Burns
  • Updated 2013-03-04T12:00:20-05:00
  • Tags: ibmredbooks,  work_from_home,  connections,  martin_keen,  social 

Are you less productive when working from home?
image By Martin Keen, IBM Redbooks Project Leader


Yahoo has been in the news recently after the company outlawed working from home, citing productivity concerns. But are work-at-home employees really less productive than their in-office counterparts? Or do advances in connectivity and collaboration make in-person meetings obsolete?


In the United States, 24 percent of employees work at least some hours at home each week. But does working from home really make you less productive?



The case against working from homeimage

Yahoo is asking all of its employees to relocate to one of its offices. The company policy states that in the interest of communication and collaboration, employees need to be working side by side. Yahoo also commented that speed and quality are often sacrificed when people work from home.


And Yahoo is not alone in preferring face-to-face collaboration. American Airlines does not allow its call center employees to work from home. Many companies in Silicon Valley offer appealing incentives to encourage employees to come to the office, including Google's cafeteria, which offers free food 24/7 to its 30,000 employees. Pixar designed a large central atrium at their campus to encourage employees to meet and have unplanned collaborations. It was even rumored that Steve Jobs wanted the atrium to house the only on-campus restrooms, to maximize traffic in the area.


Clearly many companies see great benefit in face-to-face collaboration.

Distributed employees

For companies with a few centralized campuses, requiring employees to be on site is an achievable request. For companies with a more distributed workforce, it's nearly impossible.


Currently 40 percent of IBM employees work remotely, either from home or at a client site. It's therefore not a surprise that IBM places a heavy focus on creating tools that allow employees to collaborate remotely. All 400,000-plus IBMers have an IBM Connections profile page where they can share their status, exchange files and join online communities.


So for some companies, working from home is a near necessity. But where you have a choice, which approach is best?


The CTrip experiment

CTrip, China's largest travel agency, recently undertook the first randomized experiment on working from home. Call center employees were asked to volunteer to work from home. Of the 249 qualified volunteers, half were randomly assigned to work from home four days a week, while the other half worked in the office as usual (the control group).


The experiment lasted for nine months. Who turned out to be more productive? The results were striking:

  • The performance of home workers rose dramatically, making them 13 percent more performant than their office-based colleagues. These improvements came from an increase in number of minutes worked per shift (the time they were logged in to take calls), a reduction in breaks and sick days, and an increase in the number of calls taken per minute worked.
  • Attrition dropped by 50 percent for the home workers.
  • Home workers reported higher job satisfaction and displayed a more positive attitude.
  • The one notable downside: home workers had a 50 percent reduced rate of promotion, compared to similarly performing office workers.


After the nine-month experiment concluded, CTrip estimated that it had saved about $2,000 per year per employee working from home. Unsurprisingly, CTrip rolled out the option to work from home to the entire organization.


Your opinion?

Company policies and randomized experiments aside, does the average worker feel they are more or less productive when away from the office? In a Facebook poll published on the IBM Redbooks Facebook page we asked how workers felt about their own productivity.



From over 100 responses, around one quarter felt they were most productive when working exclusively from the office. The majority (44 percent) found their most productive work was performed at home, with the rest preferring a mix of both.


Supporters of office work cited increased face-to-face collaboration with coworkers. Those preferring to work from home highlighted the lack of distractions, flexibility and time saved commuting that could be put to more productive use.


But how about you? Where do you stand on productivity when working from home?


Martin Keen is an IBM Redbooks Project Leader. He works with technical experts to create books, guides, blogs, and videos. Follow https://twitter.com/MartinRTP on Twitter.



Comments (13)

1     | 2013-06-11T15:28:17-04:00   Likes 0

[Trackback] [...] Read More here: www-304.ibm.com/connections/blogs/socialbusiness/entry/are_you_less_productive_when_working_from_home1?lang=en_us [...]

Keith Brooks
2    Keith Brooks  | 2013-03-11T13:52:42-04:00   Likes 0

In my case, not much has changed, still use Notes, Domino, ST, Quickr and now Connections for personnel.
RDP for client work or VPN access.
Now I also have more web based things like Twitter, Facebook et al but actually not much has changed technologically.
Ok, speed is MUCH MUCH faster now than back then.

3    MARTIN KEEN  | 2013-03-11T13:16:04-04:00   Likes 0

Keith -- As somebody who has been working at home for 17 years, I'd be curious to hear about the tools you've used to collaborate with your colleagues. Have they changed significantly in that time? Has it become easier over the years to stay in contact?

Grant - I love the experiment. Maybe next time try it on the golf course, with your cell phone connected to instant messaging and see if anybody notices :-) I'm hearing a lot of people echo your sentiments -- working at home is most productive, but coming into the office on occasion is also important, just for the face-to-face.

Ian - thanks for the link. Presenteeism is a big issue to overcome with home work. Perhaps it can be countered by increasing collaboration in other mediums-- frequent posts in a work team room or Connections community?

Megan - it's funny that no home worker ever seems to want to recreate the office environment in their own home -- florescent lights and cubicles. I can't think why! :-)

Megan Irvine
4    Megan Irvine  | 2013-03-08T14:10:24-05:00   Likes 0

I am definitely more productive from home. Since I gave up my office in the city, I have taken on greater challenges and more responsibility. I have more confidence in my ability to get things done because I have greater flexibility, control over my work environment, and more time to be productive. Because I also travel for work, I'm used to being able to work from any location. It would be really hard for me to go back to the daily commute, rush hour traffic, fluorescent lights, cubicles, etc.

Ian Leonard
5    Ian Leonard  | 2013-03-08T06:33:59-05:00   Likes 0

Seems this research at the London Business School concurs with the CTrip findings too on promotion. Seems "presenteeism" is still a criteria for promotion.



Grant Lindsay
6    Grant Lindsay  | 2013-03-07T15:12:34-05:00   Likes 0

In a previous employment situation, I went into the office everyday. There were many days in which I saw no coworker nor interacted with any colleague except through technology (e.g., phone, email, or Sametime.) One day, as a sort of experiment, I spent a few hours in the middle of the day working from a nearby cafe that had WiFi. When I returned to my cubicle, no one asked where I had been or even hinted that I had been missed. I didn't NEED to be in the office every day or even most days.

On the other hand, "face time," if practical, is also important. Balance and flexibility are the keys. Working exclusively from home can seem isolating for some, making them less happy and less productive. For others (like me,) the impromptu "water cooler" meetings in the office, which are touted by the we-must-be-in-the-office crowd as the driver of innovation, are distracting. I find that these conversations are often not about work, but about kids, pets, hobbies, or other non-productive topics.

I currently work from home 4 days a week, with (usually) one day in the office per week, sometimes more. I'm thankful that my employer sees the value in the balance of that.

Keith Brooks
7    Keith Brooks  | 2013-03-07T14:12:26-05:00   Likes 0

My instinct tells me the end is near for Yahoo. This was a defensive move against, costs, employees and possibly projects that dragged on.
On the other hand, if this makes internal people go back to what made Yahoo great, I am all for it.
As a person that lives in South Florida, rare are the jobs i get offered which I can stay in South Florida. Even yesterday had a call about a role in Virginia.
I have been working from home since 96 off and on for the most part. Sometimes on site or at a client's but in general remote working, which is good and bad. Flexibility is very key. Down side is a lack of awareness sometimes to what else is going on around town or in business.
I can read feeds and tweets but the lack of business discussions does hurt i have found.

8    MARTIN KEEN  | 2013-03-06T12:57:03-05:00   Likes 0

Stacy -- thanks for sharing your extensive experience of being a WAH employee. It's good to hear examples of how WAH provides you with flexibility to fit work around your personal circumstances without negatively affecting either one. A "no smart phones at the dinner table" rule is a very good idea!
One thing I hadn't considered until you mentioned it was sick days. WIB - Working In Bed -- is an all-too-easy option for folks who are used to working at home anyway, and it's probably not the best path to a speedy recovery!

Stacy Lieder
9    Stacy Lieder  | 2013-03-06T11:55:26-05:00   Likes 0

Martin, terrific article. It troubles me that the WAH employees, while more productive and less expensive, were promoted at such a disproportionately low rate. I must say, though, the lack of promotions for WAH employees does seem to align with my personal, if anecdotal, observations.

I have been a WAH employee for over 10 years, since my department "encouraged" most folks in my job to work from home. For me, it has been a very good thing, and has provided the flexibility I need to be a productive worker. My job tends to be interrupt-driven, and I find I am better able to be "hyper-focused" on critical customer issues when I am at home. Also, I tend to be more creative in the evening, and so I tend to do some work late into the night, and working from home allows me to stay up later, and sleep later, and still be working at a "decent" hour.

Additionally, because my particular job only requires I have internet and cell phone access, so in recent years, when my parents (who live in a different city) have been ill or hospitalized, I felt like I was better able to balance personal demands with work responsibilities; I don't have to "drop everything" at work to help my parents, but instead I have able to be there for my parents, and still meet my work commitments, because I don't have to be at the office, and other than conference calls, I can do my work any time of the day, as long as it is completed when it needs to be completed. This freedom has truly been a godsend for me and my family.

The increase in the power and capabilities of mobile devices has positively impacted me as well, though I will admit to having to work on the "work/life balance" part of the equation though; I tend to get caught up in things, and work more hours than I realize some days or weeks because of hot issues. I had to institute a rule not to look at my work smartphone when eating dinner out with my family, because work was truly encroaching on personal time. (Although I think this particular challenge presents to anyone with a smartphone, regardless of typical work location.)

I do think the whole "sick days" concept is a challenge for WAH employees; I have been on calls with colleagues who were ill and had no business joining calls, who lost their voices, and got bronchitis or pneumonia because they did not take "sick time" when they got sick. I've done it myself, because there is the perception that working from home is "easier", or "it's just a conference call"; the big reason for staying home - to keep from spreading germs through the office - no longer applies.

Finally, I will say this: working from home works for me, and apparently for a lot of other people as well. I think companies who recognize that some jobs, and people, are more suited toward working from home, and who give people options, not mandates, will reap the benefits of happier, more productive, more loyal employees.

10    MARTIN KEEN  | 2013-03-06T09:15:45-05:00   Likes 0

Thanks for the great comments -- this is such an interesting area of discussion.

Susan -- This is something I'd like to look at more -- the possibility that the flexible hours of working from home leads to employees actually working longer hours (spread more throughout the day). That certainly sounds like the case for you.

Khalid - I think the CTrip study backs up what you are saying -- that remote workers can sometimes be out of sight, out of mind, affecting them negatively when it's time to think about who in a team should be promoted. It seems the key is to stay in communication with your manager and team in other ways, such as with the many social business tools discussed in this IBM Social Business Insights blog.

Joyce -- Flexibility is almost certainly the best solution for most companies, recognizing different working arrangements work better for different people. For all the benefits of working from home, one quarter of respondents in our poll said working from the office was best for them. To mandate that every single person should work from home, or work from the office, is unlikely to the the optimum solution.

Joyce Davis
11    Joyce Davis  | 2013-03-06T07:36:31-05:00   Likes 0

Great post, Martin. I think a smart company is one that understands that work environment affects people very differently and that providing flexibility can be the best solution. Organizations who mandate 'in-office only' need to make sure they're goals (e.g. face-to-face interactions) are being met. I find it disappointing to hear when someone spends a hour driving into the office only to stay on the phone all day in conference calls!

12    KHALID RAZA  | 2013-03-05T00:02:06-05:00   Likes 0

IBM allows several categories of employees to work from home. For many others, it’s flexible, with managers taking the call. With this new freedom, comes a new set of responsibilities, which can make or break your impression and career too. Employees, who work from home, need to be extra careful about perception-management now than ever before. When people do not see you at work every day, they form their opinions based on nothing and that can be detrimental. Sometimes it is perceived that employees, who work from home, do not work at all. Read More: https://ibm.biz/Bdxabj

13    SUSAN BUSH  | 2013-03-04T22:11:27-05:00   Likes 0

Interesting! I was shocked at Yahoo's recent demands, so much so, that I have wondered if Yahoo was doing this as a clever way to force reduncancies?!

As a mother of 4 children under 8, working from home is crucial to my ability to stay in the workforce. No that does NOT mean that I sit on my computer and yell at children while they run around or put them in front of the TV to keep them quiet. What it means is, on days they are at care, I can get some uninterrupted work done at home (and throw a load of laundry in the dryer). It means that I can stay at home and WORK when one of my children is ill, rather than cancelling the entire day and taking sick leave. It means that I can do EXTRA work at night from home, writing presentations and answering emails so my time IN the office is filled productively with collaboration and meetings. It means that I can attempt really achieve the balance that we all strive for. The flexibility also makes me loyal to the company and endeavour to always strive to meet my objectives regardless of location...

I can't WAIT to see what happens at Yahoo and I wonder if the honest outcomes will be reported. I also hope that the employees that are forced to a job on-premise will by default, REFUSE to answer emails or phone calls out of the work environment.. fair is fair.

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