Really interesting programme on Radio 4 exploring productivity whilst working from home.
Firstly what is productivity? At its simplest it’s the amount of work or goods a worker produces per hour. The premise is that if you can raise the amount of productivity per hour standards of living will improve. The example given in the programme is Germany, where they produce £10 more per hour than workers in the UK, which means on average they earn more. Whilst the French produce as much by Thursday as workers in the UK do in a full 5 day week.
How to boost productivity
The programme interviews Nick Bloom at Stanford University about the benefits of working from home to boost productivity. He conducted a randomised control study looking at the impact of working from home. The research was initiated by a dilemma presented to him by a student in his class who was CEO of Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency. His issue was the cost of office space in Shanghai and how this made expanding prohibitively expensive. They wanted to see how effective it would be to shift staff to working at home. Volunteers at the head office who wanted two work from home were asked to participate in the study. Those with even birthdates worked at home 4 out of 5 days a week for 9 months, those with odd birthdates stayed in the office for the 9 months of the study. The did need a few requirement: no children at home during work and a space they could use as an office.
The assumption was that being allowed to work from home the employees would drop in productivity due to distractions and reduced focus on work, but that the saving in office rental would make this a cost the company was ready to accept in order to expand the number of people it could employ. In fact the study showed workers were 13% more productive at home than those working in the office. This is equivalent to adding an extra day of work. At the end of the 9 months the company rolled it out and allowed all of its employees to work from home, and offered the option to those in the trial to continue working from home. Half of those who initially opted to work from home changed their mind as they had not enjoyed the experience and they returned to the office. Those who chose to remain at home showed an increased productivity of 20%. Showing that if people are enjoying working from home, can create their own schedule and work to it and find they can do so whilst avoiding the distractions of internet, TV or fridge, then amongst those people who enjoy home working productivity can be even higher than if they were to work in the office.
One reason given for the increase in productivity was that the work involved a lot of phone bookings, and people found it easier to focus in the quiet of their home without the noise or distraction of the office. The other reason was that people worked more minutes in their shift: people worked from 9am as there were no commute delays, took shorter lunch breaks and fewer sick days.
What is the best way to work from home and boost productivity?
For this model to work at its optimum the study found people did need 1 or two days a week in the office to meet face to face and connect with their team. As companies move out of lock down but are not able to have all staff in the office at one time this model may offer a way to let people work shifts in the office whilst working from home on the others days. It also benefits the environment due to their being 20% less commuting.
Christy Johnson, founder and CEO of Artemis Connection is also interviewed. She started her own company and told staff they could all work from home all of the time. What they found was their results were above the averages of other management consulting companies where staff all worked in the office.
What are the limitations of working from home?
The programme suggests there needs to be a change of perspective from assuming people will work less at home to recognising some people will actually increase their productivity and to support this option for those who want it. There are potential limitations. Knowledge workers may need more informal interactions with other colleagues to have those serendipitous conversations and connections as they walk down the hall rather than relying on formal meetings for ideas to be generated.
Another issue is people feeling lonely and disconnected. Christy Johnson tells how in their first year their biggest source of turn over was people feeling lonely. They encouraged people, pre-Covid, to make time to have face to face meeting with their friends and family. This meant limiting work hours to make sure there was time for face to face meetings. In a poll of people working from home during Covid 47% said they were missing the social interaction office work provides.
How do you limit the impact of the limitations of working from home?
Christy is asked what they do to mitigate this and she says that twice a year they all meet together to see each other. Then every Friday they close the week by talking about any fun things they may be doing at the weekend. This replicates the experience in the office where Friday afternoon may involve less focus on work and more on chatting about plans for the weekend.
As we move out of lock down but look for ways to make companies more productive whilst having limitations on how many can physically be in an office space this may offer some encouragement for how companies can make this work to their advantage by valuing home working rather than seeing it as a limitation.
To listen to the programme click here