Working at home improves employee productivity, happiness, retention

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 10:00 p.m. MST

Stephanie Giovanetti, the mother of a 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, lives in Boston, works for a non-profit in D.C., and doesn't feel like she has to choose between her job and her family.

"I feel privileged to have the job that I do and I can be the mom I want to be," Giovanetti said.

Giovanetti, 39, has worked remotely for the last 10 years — her daughter has always known a home-working mom. After the kids are in school the house is quiet, and with her instant message screen open she feels connected to her co-workers who are more than 400 miles away.

Giovanetti is part of a growing trend of workers performing their jobs remotely — in cafes or on dining room tables at home.

In the United States the proportion of workers mainly working from home has almost doubled in the last 20 years. In 2010, according to the Census Bureau, 4.3 percent of the workforce worked mainly from home. The trend has been especially attractive for working moms and has enabled women to further enter the workforce while being able to actively raise their children. But combining work and home isn't new. In fact, remote work is just a further evolution in how and where work is done that over time has changed with technology and had major impacts on family dynamics.

While the trend of allowing workers flextime and flexplace is well known, there has been little real research into how it affects productivity and job satisfaction.

But recently a group of Stanford economists completed an experiment for China's largest travel agency, Ctrip, to see if call-center employees could be as productive at home. Employers at Ctrip wondered if remote employees might be the answer to high-rent Shanghai office space.

The experiment is the first of its kind, according to the economists, who published a paper titled "Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Corporate Experiment."

The results for those who worked at home were outstanding, showing their productivity increased by 12 percent. About two-thirds of that productivity gain came from working more, as they took fewer sick days and missed less work due to commuting. Another third of the gain came from a quieter working environment, according to the authors.

Not only were they more productive, home workers were happier, and the number of workers who left the company during this time fell by 50 percent compared to those who selected to stay in the office.

At the end of the experiment, Ctrip decided to offer the option to work from home to the entire firm.

Why more people do not work from home is still a question.

The fact that a company sought research about remote work might reflect industry's uncertainty on expanding the practice.

Jenny Ying, an author of the study and a Stanford economist, noted that not all jobs lend themselves to remote work.

"You can't ask a waitress to work from home," Ying said.

The best jobs for remote work are either monotonous or very creative tasks — accountants or painters.

Steve Horwitz, an economist at St. Lawrence University, said employers might worry about monitoring the work done by employees out of the office. To make working away from your boss successful, Horwitz thinks it is important to have a concrete, visible and easily measured product. University professors do much of their work, not including teaching, outside of the office — but their tenure depends on the easily measured output of research papers.

Being in an office also provides workers with a unique social atmosphere.

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