Working from home should be standard practice

Working from home should be standard practice

Aside from the eternal battle between the jam vs ring doughnuts camps; you can divide the workplace world into two distinct groups: those who believe working from home is more productive, and those who think working from home is less productive.

Lots of us will know the conversation that I’m alluding to: “my boss has just signed off on me becoming a remote worker and allowing me to work from home two day’s a week.”

“Awesome”, your colleague replies, “that’s two days a week of watching tv in your pyjamas and replying to the odd email to show that you’re still alive”.

The reality for many home workers is that not only do you find yourself hugely more productive when you are working anywhere other than the office, you also end up putting in more total hours.

Once you escape the shackles of travelling to work, you see that the time usually wasted on commuting to work can be better used to get on top of your emails and prioritising your daily task list before anyone else gets into the office.

There’s an anecdote that always springs to mind at this point in a remote working discussion: trains stop at a train station, buses stop at a bus station. Guess what happens at a workstation?

So, you want to be working from home but you need to convince your boss. We get it.

The only problem is that your boss is going to take some convincing that working from home is going to be better for the company and him, and not just your opportunity to be avoiding work and meetings.

Ah avoiding meetings. “But you won’t be here for the Monday morning briefing” your boss will say.

“Well,” you reply, “I can be here on Mondays if you feel that is ultimately a good use of my time and that it is an essential part of my week. Or I could dial in, or be on skype/webcam etc. and I can still be part of the meeting, but I can also get on with the work at hand.”.

It’s still your word against their preconceptions. What you need is two brackets of evidence. Someone else’s evidence to persuade them to let you try it. And then your evidence that it is working to persuade them that it’s working.

Let’s start with someone else’s evidence that working from home is a positive move for many companies. Let’s listen to Nick Bloom:

Nick Bloom sounds like a man who knows what he is talking about, and that’s definitely in your favour when entering the working from home proposal stage.

Nick is the William Eberle Professor of Economics at Stanford University, he is a Senior Fellow of SIEPR (The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research), and he is also a Co-Director of the PI&E (Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship programme) at the NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research). Surely that’s enough acronyms to establish trust in an expert?

Nick’s research is focused on management practices and uncertainty. For his sins, he previously worked at both the UK Treasury, and star consultants – McKinsey & Company. If your boss still isn’t convinced at this point, Nick is also a Fellow of the AAAS (I made that acronym up – it’s the American Academy of Arts and Sciences), and has received awards including an Alfred Sloan Fellowship, the Bernacer Prize, the European Investment Bank prize, the Frisch Medal, the Kauffman Medal and a National Science Foundation Career Award. Nick has a BA from Cambridge, an MPhil from Oxford, and a PhD from UCLA.

I feel academically inadequate now.

Working from home is not that rare regarding absolute numbers.

In the US, the number of employees who telecommute has tripled over the past 30 years, although it’s still only 2.4 percent. “Out of the 150 million Americans who work, that means roughly 3.6 million Americans work from home,” says Bloom. However, in developing countries — where mobile technology and improving digital connectivity have coincided with congestion and skyrocketing rents in cities — between 10 and 20 percent of employees work remotely at least part of the time. –

But it is rare to find unbiased, neutral studies that investigate the value or otherwise of working from home. Nick discovered that there most of the research studies on working from home were written to show that people should work from home. Biased studies are never going to convince an intelligent sceptic.

What Nick needed was a willing CEO of a large organisation with a broad cross-section of employees and some volunteer employees to enter into a randomised trial where they could put remote working to the test.

Office workers crowd not working from home
Look at all the little people!

Luckily, Nick knew a CEO (James Liang, co-founder and CEO) of a large organisation (Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency) who was interested in allowing their broad cross-section of employees in Shanghai to work from home. With high living costs pushing employees out of the city and driving down retention rates, James was pleased to offer up some volunteer employees to enter into a randomised trial where they could put remote working to the test.

Over 500 call centre employees volunteered, and half of those met the criteria set for participation; a private space from which to work, reasonably good broadband, and they had to have been employed by Ctrip for a minimum of 6 months.

To ensure a random selection for the trial, participants with even-numbered birthdays worked from home four days per week, and trial-participating employees with odd-numbered birthdays were the control group left to work in the office as before.

The study was left to operate for 9 months and the initial hypothesis was that the pros and cons would weigh out. There would be neither a positive benefit or negative drawback to working from home.

The good news for you, my biased reader, is that isn’t what happened.

Yes – Ctrip saved $1900 per employee over nine months on savings against office space, but they also found that the employees working from home had increased productivity by 13.5%. That’s an extra hour’s worth of output over the same length working day – and that’s not even looking at whether the staff working from home were putting in additional hours now that they have no commute.

Your boss might as well agree now.

But what about the retentions rates for employees working from home? Don’t they have more time to look for remote working jobs?

No. Employees in the trial who were working from home were 50% less likely to leave than their cubicle counterparts, and they reported higher job satisfaction to the researchers.

But not everyone was happy; Nick found that although the isolation of working from home was too much for some, the lack of isolation and being stuck at home with their parents was too much for some of the others!

Working from home challenges: living with your parents
“Dad, how many times have I told you? You don’t have to wear a tie because I’m working from home!”

So what’s the answer? Well, Nick found that there was no one correct answer to the question of whether working from home is a good thing. He advises companies who are curious is to examine different ways to do it.

You could suggest to your boss to try it, see if it would benefit your department, or if they are willing to try it for six months with clear, measurable milestones and key metrics on which to report back? Should your work be measured on output or time spent?

Nick Bloom’s suggestion is that there may be a balance to strike for those looking to work from home. Maybe 1 or 2 days a week working from home would be the right amount. It gives a mix of productive isolation and office-based teamwork and face time (the pre-Apple definition).

If you think that you and your company are ready to become one of the Anywheres, then you need to make your case clearly, respectfully, and measurably. Write up your proposal, reference studies such as this one, and explain how it will practically work; how you will be available, how you can be flexible on days if a meeting comes up, and agree how you can measure failure or success.

Join the remote workers, home workers, work from homers, home-based employees, and telecommuters. Buy the kit that we’ve hand selected as kit for working from home. Be an Anywhere; the workers set free. It’s worked for me.


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