Working from home has certainly become popular. Right now, about 4.3 million employees (or 3.2 percent of the workforce) work from home at least half the time, and that number will likely increase in the coming years. There are many reasons for this, including the availability of better technology, which is making remote work possible for a greater number of jobs, and employees pushing for working from home privileges to avoid commutes (and get more flexibility for their personal responsibilities).
But one of the most interesting motivations for allowing employees to work from home is the perceived notion that working from home increases productivity. In other words, that employees will get more done during the day.
So, does working from home increase productivity? And if so, how can we tell for sure?
What We Know About Working From Home and Productivity
Working from home is still a relatively new concept, so we don’t have many comprehensive scientific studies to state, definitively, whether working from home makes employees more productive. We do have several minor studies, and an abundance of anecdotal evidence, however.
One of the most commonly cited studies is a report by Stanford University, which attempted to determine whether 16,000 Chinese call center employees were more productive when working from home. Overall, employees who worked from home saw a 13 percent increase in their performance. Of this, 9 percent of the increase was from working more minutes per shift (including fewer breaks and sick days) and 4 percent of the increase was from making more calls per minute.
Interestingly, when the study was over, employees were allowed to select whether they worked from home or worked in the office, and roughly half the employees switched; some people who worked from home missed the office, and some office workers really wanted to work from home. After this switch, the performance increase nearly doubled to 22 percent. This suggests that at least some of the performance increase depends on personal preference; while working from home may increase productivity objectively, it’s just as important to find a work environment that people actively enjoy.
Additionally, this study found that working from home reduces employee attrition by 50 percent, and employee satisfaction when working from home is, generally, higher.
Overall, we can take this to mean that working from home does lead to a measurable increase in productivity, when productivity is defined as time spent working and effectiveness during worked time. Of course, there are a few problems with this study; for example, it only tracked productivity over the course of a few months. It’s not known whether years of working from home bears a consistent productivity boost. It also focuses only on one type of employee (call center workers) and only from one area of the world, China. There may be hidden variables here that are responsible for the productivity increase.
Other studies have found similar results, suggesting that people who work from home are more productive, even in other positions and work environments. For example, in one survey, 77 percent of employees who work from home reported that they felt more productive and more efficient. This type of study is flawed, too, notably because employees who work from home may be incentivized to report higher-than-average levels of productivity in a bid to retain the privilege.
While the evidence is promising, it’s insufficient. Even if the majority of studies seem to conclude that working from home boosts productivity, they can’t possibly cover every scenario. There are thousands of factors that play into the productivity of employees, and working from home is just one of those variables. If you’re interested in evaluating the benefits of working from home within your organization, you’ll need to measure employee productivity for yourself, using a tool like EmailAnalytics—but we’ll get more into that later.
Image source: Venngage
So, Working From Home Seems to Increase Productivity—But Why?
From the limited data we have, it does seem that working from home increases productivity, but why could this be the case? Here are a few potential reasons by working from home increases productivity:
Extra effort is rewarded.
One reasonable explanation is that when people start working from home, they intentionally put in more effort, meaning they’ll work harder and longer than they ordinarily would. There are a few reasons for this. First, they may see working from home as a luxurious privilege; accordingly, they want to prove to their bosses that it makes them more productive. That way, they’ll be more likely to keep the privilege. Second, employers who allow employees to work from home usually have some means of tracking productivity digitally. Knowing that they’re being monitored, employees are inclined to be on their best behavior; think of it as a manifestation of the Hawthorne Effect. This effect is named for a study back in 1958, when it seemed like increased lighting was improving employee productivity—but in reality, employee productivity was increasing because employees knew they were being watched.
Commute is eliminated.
The average commute in the United States is 25 minutes each way, or roughly an hour round-trip. Working from home completely eliminates this commute in most cases. If you’re like most employees, you see your commute as a necessary part of the workday, so your 8-hour shift suddenly feels like a 9-hour shift. When you take this away, simultaneously taking away the stress and frustrations associated with it, employees feel like they have an hour of extra free time. Accordingly, they’re more inclined to spend extra time on work tasks and projects of their own free will.
Stress is reduced.
Most people feel less stressed when they’re at home, especially if they have a closed, designated office where they can work in peace. Your home is a comfortable environment. You can buy exactly the furniture you want. You can dress how you like. You can skip the aggravating traffic of your normal commute. It’s no wonder why remote workers are less stressed, and less stress is correlated with higher productivity
Environmental control is put in the hands of the employee.
Employees working from home also have much more control over their environments. Different people have different environmental preferences. Some people work better in a cold office, while others prefer something warmer. Some people like bright lights that allow them to see and read better, while others prefer the relaxation associated with a dimmer environment. At home, you won’t be fighting your coworkers over control of the thermostat, nor will you have to levy for dimmer lights. It’s all entirely within your control, and you can experiment to find the conditions that work best for you.
Distractions are reduced.
What would you say is your biggest distraction at work? Is it your phone, or incoming email notifications? If you’re like 61 percent of the workforce, your biggest source of distraction in the office is your colleagues. You might also be irritated to be asked for your opinion and attention periodically throughout the day by coworkers who are passing by. When you work from home, you can eliminate, or at least mitigate these distractions. Coworkers and supervisors can still attempt to ping you, but you’ll have more control over how and when you receive notifications, as well as how you respond to them. Of course, working from home may introduce new distractions, like sitting on the couch and watching TV, but you’ll have more direct control over them.
Communication can be refined.
Working from home also forces people to communicate more efficiently in most cases. Rather than shouting to a coworker across the hall every time you have a question or hosting regular in person meetings, you’ll need to think about what you want to say, and rely more heavily on written forms of communication like email and instant messaging. This often reduces the time it takes to have a full conversation, while simultaneously improving the documentation of messages between coworkers.
Other Benefits of Allowing Employees to Work from Home
It’s worth noting that there are other benefits to working from home, which can increase the efficiency of your environment, even if they have no direct bearing on individual productivity:
Higher employee retention.
Companies with working from home options tend to have higher employee retention rates than their competitors, for obvious reasons. Higher retention means your organization will need to spend less time scouting for and training new candidates. It also means eventually, you’ll have far more experienced people on the job. In other words, you’ll spend less time and fewer resources on your employees, and they’ll gradually get better at their jobs naturally.
Lower per-employee expenses.
Businesses with remote workforces also have lower per-employee expenses. Fewer employees in the office means you’ll need less office space, resulting in lower monthly costs. You’ll spend less money on parking spaces, amenities, and office supplies as well. Even if employee productivity stayed exactly the same, the return on investment (ROI) for each of your employees would increase, due to these lower costs.
Larger employee hiring pool.
Hiring employees who work from home means you can hire anyone, regardless of where they live and where they’re interested in living. This greatly widens your range of employee options. You can search for exactly the right candidates, with exactly the right skillsets and price points, which means over time, you’ll cultivate the ultimate team—not just the best people who happen to be in your local area.
How to Measure Productivity On Work-From-Home Employees
If you’re thinking about working from home more frequently, or if you’re considering letting some of your team members work from home, you can’t simply assume that working from home increases productivity (even if all the working from home productivity statistics seem to suggest it). It’s important to have some way to measure you and your employees’ productivity, so you can see how it’s affected by the most recent change.
There are many tools you can use to do this, including task management and project management apps, if you use them. We have a whole post dedicated to ways to monitor employees working from home which is a great starting point.
But one of the most effective and easy ways to get started is to track your employee emails with an app like our own EmailAnalytics. With EmailAnalytics, you’ll be able to measure how many emails your employees are sending and receiving, their busiest times of day, their top senders and recipients, average email response times, and even how they manage cumbersome email threads. It’s an indication of workload, an assessment of their communicative efficiency, and an overview of their daily schedule, all in one.
If you’re interested in learning more about how EmailAnalytics can help you understand your remote workforce, sign up for a free trial today! In minutes, you can integrate the tool with any of your employees’ Gmail or G Suite accounts and start accurately measuring their productivity.
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.