There’s an ongoing debate on the pros and cons of working from home. On the one hand, as Jennifer Senior so eloquently explained in a recent feature story in New York, remote workers don’t get to experience the friendships and mentorships that naturally happen between co-workers at the office, and may miss out on various psychological benefits as well. On the other hand: sweatpants. Adding to both sides of the debate in a piece on Harvard Business Review today, Nicholas Bloom and John Roberts of Stanford University share the details of a study they recently conducted with China’s largest travel agency, Ctrip.
About 250 employees told their bosses they’d be willing to work from home in order to help out with the study, and about half of them were given permission to do so, with the other half remaining at the office and thereby forming a control group. Bloom and Roberts tracked the workers’ productivity and days off over a period of nine months, and the results were these:
First, the performance of the home-workers went up dramatically, increasing by 13% over the course of nine months. This increase in output came mainly from a rise in the number of minutes they worked during each shift, which was due to a reduction in the number of breaks and sick days that they took. The home-workers were also more productive per minute, which employees told us (in detailed surveys) was due to the quieter working conditions at home.
As for the control group of office-bound workers, Bloom and Roberts didn’t find any significant changes in their productivity levels or the amount of absences as compared to before they were given the option to work from home.
After the success of the experiment, the Ctrip executives gave all of their employees permission to work from home if they wanted to — but, perhaps surprisingly, half of the group who’d spent the previous nine months working from home decided to head back into the office, and 75 percent of the office workers who had wanted to work from home at the start of the experiment also chose the office over home. “The main reason seems to be that people who worked from home were lonely,” write Bloom and Roberts, who conclude that the best option for employees may simply be to have options.