“Working from home” is a just a euphemism for higher productivity

Watch high quality movies at ImovieSh.com, courtesy of Sil Silv
“Watch high quality movies at ImovieSh.com.”  Photo courtesy of Sil Silv.

When juggling your commitments, you may have spent time reflecting about what is truly important to you. Are your many hours at work meaningful for your personal growth and the home life you desire? Thankfully, there is a mixed blessing available for those who want better trade-offs: the option to work from home.

There is a lively debate about the virtues of working from home, and we all know why it’s controversial. You have the freedom to alternate between hard work and lazy selfishness in a manner that makes you feel guilty and sheepish. Am I the only one who washes bedsheets while I’m trying to figure out how to solve a work puzzle? I feel bad about the housework, but I forget to take credit that my brain is fully engaged in work.

The Case For Working From Home

The case in favour of working from home comes from a study that was summarized nicely in an article by Bill Murphy Jr. at Inc.com. Murphy reviewed a study of call centre employees in China who participated in a 9-month pilot. The employer randomly-selected one half of the pilot group to work from home while the others came into the office. Call centres have great tracking systems to measure productivity, so they were able to analyze the impact.

The gains from working from home were many. Employees who worked from home saved the company $2,000 per year in office space. They put 9% more time into productive work hours. They were 14% more efficient with their time, taking fewer breaks and less sick time. Their turnover was 50% lower.

The masters of productivity would be proud of them.

The Case Against Working From Home

Of course, working from home is not always the best way to collaborate. Over at the Atlantic, Jerry Useem advances evidence that working face-to-face is better for collaboration. He cites research by Judith Olson of UC Irvine who worked on an experiment with Ford in the late 1990s that put software developers in a war room. It was called “radical colocation.” The close-proximity teams completed their work in one third of the time relative to other groups. In another study, a simulated cockpit crew in a crammed space were able to able to communicate a major issue in 24 seconds through hand motions and non-verbal utterances. Face-time and direct communication can be critical for efficient teamwork and collaboration.

The Best Decisions are Sensitive to Context

What is notable is that the evidence twists and turns depending on context. Call centres are all about the dynamic between the employee and customer, so collaborations with work peers might be unimportant. By contrast, work that is built around face-to-face communication demands proximity. This would not be the first time that the research on optimal workforce practices concludes that it depends on the context of the business and the mindset of the individual employee.

That research Murphy cited was a paper entitled “Does Working from Home Work?  Evidence from a Chinese Experiment”, by Nicholas Bloom et al, a working paper from the NBER from March 2013. I gave it a closer read, and there was a lot of nuance not picked up by the business press.

For example, commuting distance had a big impact on productivity differences. Those whose commute time was more than two hours per day saw dramatic improvements in their productivity when working from home. This finding is consistent with a theory in labour economics called the labour-leisure model, that suggests people start with an endowment of weekly hours and make trade-offs between their personal life and work life. Commuting subtracts from the hours-endowment, and if you give those people the option to work from home, they will apply more hours to their work and also to themselves. The interests of work and home are not in dichotomy if both are sabotaged by commuting.

During the experiment, people had been assigned to work from home on a randomized basis. When employees were given the opportunity to choose, half of them chose to come to the office instead. They were rightly concerned they would be passed over for promotion. Employees working from home were 50% less likely to receive a performance-based promotion, which is outrageous when you consider they were more productive. They were “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” I see a side-story about the social contract.  The employer figured out how to spend less money on office space and stop promoting their most productive people, and several employees said “no thanks” and started showing up at the office again.

About 10% of the people who had not volunteered for the experiment chose to work from home after the pilot was opened-up for wider participation. Once it became increasingly obvious who would benefit and who would be disadvantaged, several people still chose working from home. This outcome highlights the immense impact of giving people autonomy over how their work lives should be organized. Any two people could make decisions that go in opposite directions, based on their unique preferences.

May of the employees who chose to return to the office after the experiment rightly perceived that they were less productive when working from home. When those employees started working in the office again, this self-selection had a contrast-effect on the more-productive workers who continued to work from home. During the experiment home-workers were 14% more productive, but once self-selection was permitted home workers were 25% more productive. The impact was almost doubled.

Human Nature Out-Ranks The Logistics

I think it’s important to flag that autonomy in itself had a positive impact that was about as important as a comprehensive workplace redesign. That is, executive decision-making struggles to prove its worth against the impact of a positive workplace culture where people can self-select into higher productivity.

One of the main drivers for increased productivity was that people working from home worked when they were slightly ill. I have to confess, I have done this myself. Partially-sick work-from-home days are win-win for employee and employer. This practice reduces office contagion, gets a mostly productive work-day from the employee who might otherwise be doing nothing, and gives the employee some control over their guilt and workload.

When sick, people need the comforts of home to get well and stay well. Maybe a family member will bring them a nice bowl of chicken soup that gives them a sense that all is right in the world.

But there’s a catch.  Young people who live with their parents don’t want to work from home.  When people were free to choose, these young people came to the office in order to escape their family.  Thanks for the soup, mom, I love you dearly.  But would you please stop telling me how to format my presentations, deal with the workplace bully, and get along with my colleagues?  I need to choose my own life.

[This is a re-post of an article from May 14, 2018]

Keeping Old Things Beautiful

Tower Bridge (HDR), by Adriano Aurlio Araujo
Tower Bridge (HDR).  Photo courtesy of Adriano Aurlio Araujo

We need to get excited about maintenance, according to a great counter-intuitive article by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel.  The authors propose that we should give “maintenance” higher priority in our society.  By maintenance they are mostly referring to government-owned physical infrastructure; ensuring it is functioning, well-maintained, and not closed-down for emergency repairs.  While the authors also tip their hats to computer infrastructure, the connection to public transit keeps the idea tangible for everyone.

The article asserts that “Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.”  They highlight that while “innovation” describes the art of doing something new, technology broadly-defined should rightfully consider technology that is mid-life or old.

Many of the coolest stories in business shine a light on this misunderstood area.  There are vulture funds that pick up the assets of distressed companies and refurbish the “old” company into something new.  There are entrepreneurs that buy old, depreciated assets at bargain-basement prices and in the process net high percentage returns on the asset they got for cheap.  There is a company in my region that tried to close down their business, held an auction to unload their old equipment, and discovered that auctioning is an incredibly lucrative business to get into.

But those stories are a little too sexy; let’s get back to drudgery.  It turns out that a large number of engineers and computer programmers are devoted to maintaining something that has already been created.  In addition, maintenance workers are often paid less than those who are closest to ribbon-cutting ceremonies, IPOs, and product launches.

Workforce Management and the Maintenance of Human Capital

The connection to human resources is that people are trying to articulate how we should think of employees as “human capital.”  The phrase itself invokes a metaphor that the people who show up every day are a treasure that you invest in and get great work out of.  Perhaps we should extend the metaphor into the importance of human capital maintenance.  Do we have opportunities to conserve, re-build, renovate, and polish-up our pre-existing cadre of staff?  If you think about it for a while, examples abound:

  • When employees are injured, there is significant value to intervening early to help them stay at work or return to work sooner. The “return to work” field is a specialized field which has a knack to it, and major employers take these efforts seriously.
  • It is well understood that new hires have higher engagement than longer-serving staff.  By default, the implication is that if you want to improve engagement, your greatest opportunity is with longer-service staff.  At the crux of workforce analytics and employee engagement is the opportunity to refresh the workplace experience of those hired long ago.
  • In the c-suite, there is the recurring challenge that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Drucker) However, it is understood that workplace culture changes very slowly. This tension implies that those who want to advance a strategy must have significant understanding of the longer-serving staff who carry the workplace culture.  Perhaps looking to the wisdom of longer-serving staff is an easier way to predict which initiatives will take hold in the pre-existing culture?
  • When attempting workforce analytics and workforce planning efforts that align to strategy, stale strategy documents and longer-serving executives can be your only opportunity for alignment. New executives and new strategy documents can have a long runway, in some cases with a perpetual churn.
  • Long-serving staff tend to learn a number of shortcuts that allow them to achieve their work goals more easily.   This grab-bag of quick-tips, tacit knowledge, and mature social networks are a troublesome source of high productivity.  Workplaces fear the retirement of long-service employees who understand the physical and organizational machinery in a manner that is undocumented.  In such cases there is a demand for knowledge management, the active cultivation of repositories of information where tacit knowledge is curated and transferred between newer and longer-serving staff.
  • As millennials age, our struggles to understand this generation are going to shift. It’s not so much that we don’t know what they’re thinking (they tend to just tell us).  Rather, what will their experience be as millennial managers, dealing with the next batch of young whipper-snappers in Generation Z?  This multi-generational transfer of energy and wisdom will demand a workplace culture of humility and curiosity.  Workplace traditions can emerge in just a couple of years, and can evolve around the behaviors of employees young and old.  Yet it is not so much the best perspective that matters; it is the ability to move a diversity of perspectives amongst peers.

As the shine comes off workforce planning and workplace analytics as a novelty, we are obliged to take our practice into a mode where great work is done quietly, well, and with a known value.  As we look at the legacy of buzzwords that came before us and the shiny new practices to come, there is a new opportunity to understand the boundary between engineering drawings, breaking the ground, and replacing broken parts.  Cultivating and maintaining people, their knowledge, their relationships, and the workplace culture are key to delivering strategy.  There is an opportunity for your employees to age gracefully and keep delivering the goods.