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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Do people really get more work done at home?

At Harvard Business School, Prithwiraj Choudhury is one of the staunchest advocates of the shift to getting rid of offices like this one and letting employees work wherever they want. “Why do we need all these empty offices?” he asks.
At Harvard Business School, Prithwiraj Choudhury is one of the staunchest advocates of the shift to getting rid of offices like this one and letting employees work wherever they want. “Why do we need all these empty offices?” he asks.Michael Short/Bloomberg


The work-from-home lifestyle eliminates the need for a necktie, uncomfortable shoes, and a stressful commute. It nixes those meetings that you get dragged into because you happened to be looking un-busy at the wrong moment. For companies, it could save millions of dollars on office rents.

But is it the future for every white-collar company?

I wanted to understand what the latest research says about the merits — and the challenges — of working from home.

Rebecca Wetteman, a technology industry analyst who works from home in Boston’s South End, earlier this month released the results of a survey of 327 people who work at home. About half were working from home for the first time, 10 percent had been doing it full-time before the pandemic, and the rest had been blending some office days with home days.

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Wetteman found that for people with children, productivity has dipped 2 percent, compared with working in the office. But it is down even more, 3 percent, among people who live alone.

“There’s probably the ‘lack of a babysitter’ principle there,” she says. “If there’s nobody there to watch me, I may spend more time streaming Netflix and following things on Twitter that don’t have a lot to do with my work.”

Overall, Wetteman found that working from home diminishes productivity just 1 percent.

“If we look at who was at the high end of the productivity spectrum,” Wetteman says, “it was those who cut a significant amount off their commuting time. And that was the most enthusiastic group about working from home — the stress and cost of commuting goes away.”

Wetteman says that 40 percent of her respondents would like to continue working from home full time after the pandemic passes.

The top three distractions in the home office? Social media, kids, and other adults. Those distractions — coupled with tasks like making lunch for kids, walking dogs, and arguing with spouses about who has to go to the drugstore next — seem to be extending the workday. Wetteman’s research found the workday in the era of COVID-19 lasts 9.75 hours.

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One drawback to Wetteman’s survey was that she asked at-home workers about their own productivity. My hunch is that many of us overestimate our awesomeness, even in an anonymous survey. So I ran an (admittedly unscientific) poll on Twitter. I asked people who supervise teams or manage individuals about productivity in the current work-from-home context.

The result, after 158 responses: 24 percent feel their team is more productive, 40 percent say they are getting about the same level of productivity, and 22 percent say they’re getting less productivity. (The remaining 14 percent aren’t sure yet.)

Ben Waber, CEO of Humanyze ― a Boston startup that sells software to large companies to help them understand workplace dynamics ― says he is finding that now that face-to-face meetings and impromptu kitchen chats have been eliminated, employees are communicating more with their closest collaborators. But he also notes that communication has dropped 15 percent with colleagues they don’t work directly with on a regular basis. It’s also tougher for employees to establish new relationships at the company right now, Waber says.

He observes that you can easily quantify how much more productive a worker is if his or her job involves, for example, reviewing expense reports all day. Are they reviewing more reports each day in May 2020 than they did in January 2020? But for more creative endeavors, such as designing a product, losing both planned and ad hoc conversations in-person may be more important than we understand.

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“Our customers are Fortune 500 companies,” Waber says, “and I’m concerned for their medium- to long-term output. If we look out toward the end of the year, or into next year, my strong hypothesis is that we’ll see some weird misses on deadlines, or product releases that are sub-par.

"A lot of us will write that off to post-COVID hangover, or economic conditions, but it’ll likely be due to the fact that the social structures that make up organizations” — and all that casual exchange of information that happens in an office — “have taken a really significant hit.”

Kristen Anderson, a Boston entrepreneur, made a similar point in response to my Twitter poll. Her company, Catch Benefits, offers services that help freelance and gig workers manage their finances. At Catch, she writes, “We’ve seen short-term task accomplishment go way up. But longer-term, ambiguous, collaborative strategy conversations are way harder. For a brief period, that’s OK, but in the long run, it kills.” Anderson admits that she may be a little old-fashioned in “wanting to keep the kitchen conversations” she has with her team in the office.

At Harvard Business School, Prithwiraj Choudhury is one of the staunchest advocates of the shift to getting rid of offices and letting employees work wherever they want. “Why do we need all these empty offices?” he asks.

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Some of his recent research looked at patent examiners who work for the government. When they were allowed to work anywhere in the country, starting in 2011, their work output increased 4.4 percent, without any decrease in quality. (Yes, evaluating the validity of patents is fairly solitary work, but Choudhury says he is studying more collaborative activities, as well.)

Choudhury says the best approach for most organizations is letting employees live and work anywhere they want, and periodically bringing everyone together for gatherings that help establish social connections.

But even Choudhury, a cheerleader for the future of office-less organizations, says we probably aren’t seeing the highest quality of remote work happening right now.

“I do expect we’ll see a productivity dip in this period, but this period of working from home is not really a great benchmark for thinking about the phenomenon more broadly,” he says. People are trying to home-school their kids. They can’t go to the gym to blow off steam. They may be sharing a small home office with a spouse.

“The economy is suffering, and there are all these psychological costs,” he says. “This is nothing like normal.” (Wetteman’s survey found that respondents’ top worries right now are job security, followed by getting sick, followed closely by a family member getting sick.)

Working remotely, Choudhury says, has typically been a perk debated and dispensed in limited amounts by the human resources department. The current crisis, he says, “is a great opportunity to make remote work part of the strategic discussion for CEOs and other C-level leaders.”

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Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner