Working from home is a divisive issue in the modern workplace. Employees and employers alike have mixed views on it; some insist that working from home makes them more productive and less stressed, while others remain firm that working from home is just an excuse to slack off, or will lead to more distractions than actual work getting done. There are other means of work that might have a higher ROI.
The problem is most of these points are valid, but based entirely on subjective experience. If a worker feels more productive working from home, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is. If a boss suspects a worker of slacking off when she’s working from home, that also doesn’t necessarily mean she is. Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of objective information on the topic derived from research and evaluation.
Still, I’d like the chance to compile this information and explore the potential options in working from home, mostly from an employer’s perspective, to determine about how much time an average worker could save by working from home. This should help you determine whether allowing work-from-home days, either partially or fully, is a worthwhile endeavor (or experiment).
A Study From Ctrip
One of the most popular pieces of evidence cited by proponents of working from home was produced by the owners of Chinese travel site Ctrip. Under the experiment, Ctrip call center employees could volunteer to work from home for a period of nine months. Roughly half the employees opted to work from home, while the other half remained in the office as a control group. The results seemed to favor the work-from-home crowd, with home workers completing approximately 13.5 percent more calls than office workers under nearly identical circumstances. As Nicholas Bloom himself identified, that’s nearly a full weekday of extra work. Bloom attributes this to a quieter environment and the ability to work more hours in a day, thanks to no commuting times, shorter breaks, and no need to interrupt work to run errands.
Over the course of the nine months, Ctrip also saved approximately $1,900 per employee due to the savings of furniture and office space. That’s about $200 per month per employee.
However, there are a handful of problems with this study. First, it has a very narrow range of participants. It only studies call center employees, so these findings might not apply to senior employees, creative types, or highly skilled employees. It also might not apply to companies with different work cultures and morales. Second, it only measures raw productivity, ignoring total hours worked (which is important for hourly employees), overall happiness, and other considering factors. Finally, it doesn’t take into account the fact that these employees could have been working extra hard because they knew they were being measured, not because of any inherent advantages of working from home.
The Average Commute
The average commute time to work is 25.4 minutes, which is nearly an hour for a round trip (with variances based on local factors, of course). Working from home would therefore save the average worker one hour per weekday in time. This means each worker could have an extra hour to get his/her work done, or an extra hour to run errands and do chores, which would eliminate distractions for actual working hours. The elimination of the commute alone could feasibly earn employees and employers alike an extra five hours per week of time that would have otherwise been wasted.
Don’t forget that offices take significant time and money in their upkeep. Average offices spend between $200 and $1,000 per person for furniture, consumables, and other necessary products. You won’t be able to eliminate all of this by letting some of your workers work from home, but it’s still an important consideration. However, the lack of a proper “office environment” might interfere with your employees’ abilities to work. This particular consideration is a double-edged sword.
Also keep in mind that not all benefits of working from home are measurable. For example, employees working from home might be more optimistic about their positions and happy doing the work, leading to higher retention rates. Your employees might also be less stressed, leading to more positive cultures and happier workers as well.
The Bottom Line
Because every office culture is different, every employee works best under different circumstances, and every position has different needs, it’s impossible to say that working from home will work for everyone. However, current evidence suggests that a work-from-home model could theoretically yield at least 20 hours a month in commute savings, $200 or more in office expenditure savings, and up to a 13 percent increase in overall productivity. On paper, working from home is a good strategy for your overall productivity, but again that depends on the type of business you run.
How to Move Forward
If you’re considering adopting a work-from-home culture for your workers but you aren’t sure whether or not it will work, consider implementing one gradually:
· Only allow one work-from-home day per week
· Only allow a handful of your highest performing workers the privilege of working from home
· Put in work-from-home stipulations, such as being online during certain hours
If you implement a system with these limitations, you can easily tell whether it’s having an impact on your workforce, positively or negatively. From there, you can scale up or down based on your experiences and find a perfect balance for you and your team.