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Teleworkin' It
Want More Productive Employees? Tell Them to Go Home

Last March we reported on a study that showed telework could actually increase productivity. The Stanford and Beijing University study, which you can find here, randomly assigned volunteers at a Chinese call center either to the office or to work at home. After nine months, the researchers found the teleworking employees were getting more work done:

Home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which about 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick-days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter working environment).

But the benefits extended well beyond the realm of productivity. Nicholas Bloom, the study’s lead author, reflected on the overwhelmingly positive effect teleworking had in a recent interview for the Harvard Business Review Magazine:

The results we saw at Ctrip blew me away. Ctrip was thinking that it could save money on space and furniture if people worked from home and that the savings would outweigh the productivity hit it would take when employees left the discipline of the office environment. Instead, we found that people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than the staff in the office did—meaning that Ctrip got almost an extra workday a week out of them. They also quit at half the rate of people in the office—way beyond what we anticipated. And predictably, at-home workers reported much higher job satisfaction.

Better for workers, and certainly better for business: Ctrip reportedly saved nearly $2,000 per employee over the nine month period by not having to provide a physical space in which to work.

It’s important to ground this enthusiasm with some caveats. Telework isn’t the best option for every employee or every occupation, for obvious reasons—a car mechanic can’t work on your car remotely (at least, not yet). And many workers—especially younger ones, as Bloom points out—won’t want to miss out on the social benefits accrued from working in an office. Finally, an all-telework all-the-time arrangement can leave workers feeling isolated and less like members of a team.

Telework, like any strategy, has to be custom-fit to the situation in which it’s being implemented. Research suggests that somewhere between 2 and 2.5 days a week is the sweet spot for remote work, but results will vary.

As we transition to an information economy, the kind of work we do will be less and less tied to physical things; it makes sense that where we work will become less important as well.

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  • TommyTwo

    “Go Home, young man.”

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