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  • September 30, 2020
  • By Ian Jacobs, principal analyst, Forrester Research

We Don’t All Want to Work From Home

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AT PRESS TIME we’re more than six months into this pandemic, and the folks I talk to say regularly that they are just done with 2020. In addition to the COVID-19 crisis and its attendant economic damage, I’ve heard people cite murder hornets and the massive wildfires that have laid waste to the West Coast of the United States as reasons to just skip the rest of this year and move on. Not sure why they expect 2021 to be that much better. Then again, unchecked optimism, which used to be my default mien, seems to be in short supply just now.

This column, however, was not designed to bum people out; it was designed to cast a lighthearted—or at least gently snarky—eye on this industry of ours. So I’ll turn my attention to some positive news.

Let’s take a gander at the work of Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom and his graduate student James Liang. Years before the pandemic, Bloom wanted to test out whether employees were happier and more efficient working at home than in the office. News articles have been crowing about how the nature of work has shifted, how commercial real estate in downtown cores is dead, and how we’ll all be Zooming into each other’s makeshift offices in our comfy pants. Bloom, being a data-focused guy, wanted to know if he could create an experiment to see if this imagined future is tenable.

Creating a scientifically valid test for this would, under normal circumstances, be nigh impossible. But Liang was not a normal grad student—he was also the CEO of a large Chinese travel agency. An accomplished chap, I’d say! So Liang volunteered his employees as test subjects. Liang recruited hundreds of volunteers from his company’s contact center, sent half of them to work from home four days per week and kept the other half in the center full-time. The Stanford team then watched the two groups for nine months.

The results, published in 2015, were, well, mixed. Efficiency improved, sure. At-home workers were logged into the contact center system—in other words, taking calls—9 percent more than those in the center. The remote workers also took shorter breaks, fewer sick days, less time off, and left the company less often. If, like me, you question whether this is a net positive in the long run for the workers, well, such is corporate logic. Still, the experiment “showed” that these workers were working more. It is harder to prove that they were happier, but the at-home workers reported better job satisfaction to the Stanford team.

So why are the outcomes mixed? The research got the travel agency so excited that it decided to allow all workers to work from home. But when it did so, half of the workers who had been at home decided they wanted to come back to the contact center. This would seem to contradict the idea that the workers were truly happier.

The reality is complicated. While playing with your new puppy in the middle of the day can be a transcendent experience, working at home can be very isolating when it comes to other human beings. Also, workers fear the dreaded “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon. Will you get the promotion or the big bonus if you are not up in your boss’s grill all the time? And so many of those happier workers braved the commute and went back to the brick-and-mortar contact center.

Remember that I said this was positive news? My takeaway from the Stanford experiment is that what matters to workers is flexibility. Maybe work-from-home should be a few days per week. Maybe it works only for some workers but not all. And that’s great news for employees, and through them, for customers. Companies tempted to take an absolutist stance either way should keep this study in mind.  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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