The number of people working from home has increased 115 per cent in a decade, according to reports(1). But it isn’t a model that suits every employee – or every employer. Matthew Jenkin explores the pros and cons, and uncovers an unexpected conclusion
Wear what you want, choose your own hours and never commute again – people who work from home are the envy of office dwellers everywhere. Ditching the suit and desk for pyjamas and the sofa might sound more comfortable – but does it really boost productivity?
A record number of people in the US(2) and the UK(3) now work from home, with experts predicting that number will continue to grow. Research by Boston-based consultancy Strategy Analytics estimated that the global remote workforce would grow from around 38.8 per cent of all employees in 2016 to 42.5 per cent in 2022(4) . Another study shows one-third of employees will be working from home in 10 years’ time(5).
These figures shouldn’t be a surprise. A 2017 survey, conducted by US career site FlexJobs, found remote work to be the most sought-after perk, with 81 per cent of employees selecting this as the type of work flexibility they want most(6). More and more companies are responding to the growing demand by offering remote or home working to employees. In 2017, Amazon announced it would be hiring 5,000 remote workers by year’s end(7) and Apple recently posted a job advertisement seeking staff for work-from-home positions(8).
On the face of it, there seems to be a strong case for home working. A growing body of research suggests that remote employees, including home workers, are more effective in their day-to-day roles than office-based staff. A 2014 study of workers at Chinese travel website Ctrip compared the productivity of those employees who regularly worked remotely to those who were solely office-based. The result was that remote workers ended up making 13.5 per cent more sales calls than their comparable office workers(9) – that’s almost a full extra day’s-worth of work. They also quit at half the rate of people in the office and reported much higher job satisfaction.
According to a 2016 survey of American remote workers, about 91 per cent of people who work from home feel they’re more productive than when they’re in an office(10). What’s more, a Canada Life Group study found homeworkers ranked their productivity at 7.7 out of 10, compared with a score of 6.5 given by those in open-plan offices(11). A recent Gallup study also showed that employees who work from home three to four days a week are far more likely to ‘feel engaged’ and less likely to feel ‘not engaged’ than people who work in the office every day(12).
Flaws in the system
And yet, despite the rush to embrace home working, not everyone is convinced. An LSE study of more than 500 staff and managers(13) on attitudes towards flexible working found that many of the positive effects waned over time. Employees no longer viewed working from home as a privilege and began behaving no differently to office-based staff, producing similar results.
It was felt that there was a lack of professional support from employers and the research found there was poor communication with colleagues and limited face-to-face interactions. As a result, employees resented their employers for possibly stunting their professional development and felt less loyal to the company.
Supporting this research, major corporations such as IBM and Yahoo have both reversed remote-working policies, having seen a dip in productivity as a result(14) .
Part of the issue with working from home is that it doesn’t fundamentally change human psychology. If you are an unproductive person in the office, then it’s unlikely to change when you work from home – where there are plenty of other distractions, whether it’s the TV, household chores or half-eaten cheesecake in the fridge. You still need tactics and strategies in place to help you work effectively.
In fact, respondents to a 2017 Regus survey reported that working from home left them lonely, lacking interaction with other professionals, raiding the fridge and irritated by noisy family members.
While your productivity may increase while working at home, so too could your feelings of isolation and loneliness
Perhaps what’s needed is a workspace solution that combines the productivity perks of remote working while eliminating the sofa-slump. It’s no surprise, then, that as remote or home working has increased, so too has the need for co-working spaces where members can collaborate and network with like-minded people. In 2017, there were 15,500 co-working spaces globally(15). That’s up from 12,100 in 2016 and it is projected to jump to 18,900 in 2018.
Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of the virtual assistant Time etc(16), believes the office is far from dead and remains a productive workspace for many people. In his own company, he recognised from the start that not all of his staff would work at their best from home, so ensured the practice was optional only. He suggests that some businesses and employees have been too quick to work from home without really considering if it is a match for their personality.
“Home working should be tailored to each individual,” he says. “If you enforce working from home across the board without making assessments, you run the risk of putting people who need energy and human interaction around them into an isolated silo and that doesn’t perhaps work so well.”
One of the biggest challenges for home workers is clearly finding opportunities for social interaction. Kudzi says that the office environment – whether it’s in the form of a traditional office or a co-working space – still comes out on top when it comes to facilitating meetings and making important connections.
“Those watercooler moments are often where informal coaching happens. It’s where you learn lots of things that are going on in the company as well,” she says. “I think that some element of working in the office is important and, even if you are working for yourself, building in some time where you are around other people and where you can make some informal connections is important as well.”
Finding a balance
Yet we don’t have to throw out the notion of home working altogether – instead, it’s about finding a balance. Perhaps utilising shared office space for meetings and deadline-specific work, and using home working for more creative or solo-focused tasks.
Psychologically, it helps to stop thinking of home working as any different to office working. Judy Heminsley, founder of lifestyle blog All Things Bright & Good and author of Work from Home, says many home workers find it hard to shake the nine-to-five routine at first, so they may find it easier to keep that structure in place initially.
“A lot of people I have talked to have said it has taken them a few years to get the nine-to-five routine out of their system,” she explains. “People have been doing it since the industrial revolution, so it’s become a social habit. When you start working remotely, you need to build up that confidence.”
And, no matter where you’re based, in order for home workers to be as productive as possible, there should be a clear structure to the day, claims business coach Ruth Kudzi. “You need to schedule your tasks, you need to take regular breaks. You need to focus on one thing at a time,” she advises. “You don’t have to stick to office hours, but you do need to decide when you are most productive and be disciplined.”
Matthew Jenkin is a British freelance journalist and the former editor of Guardian Careers, The Guardian newspaper’s community site for job seekers and career changers