U.S. News


Remote Work May Ramp Up Productivity, But Workers Feel Isolated

Working from home is becoming more popular, but its effects are only just being studied.
Posted at 8:19 PM, Jul 18, 2019

Working from home is so common these days there's an abbreviation that pops up in emails: WFH. 

"I am WFH today." 

There also is a "working remotely" status icon in Slack so everyone knows where you are, what you're doing. 

In the U.S., 3.9 million employees — 2.9% of the workforce — worked from home at least half of the time in 2017. That's more than double the previous decade — 1.8 million in 2005 — and keeps climbing.

It hasn't always been that way. 

IBM was a trailblazer. In 1979, "Big Blue" ran an experiment by allowing five employees to work at home. Four years later, that number had reached 2,000, and in 2009, an HR website writes "40 percent of IBM's some 386,000 employees in 173 countries have no office at all."

Did IBM send people home because they'd be more comfortable typing away in their PJs? No. It was mostly about money — $2 billion in savings on office space.

The policy changed in the spring of 2017 — thousands of employees were ordered back to the office. 

Money was a motivator this time, too. IBM had experienced a string of sagging sales citing the need for "really creative and inspiring locations," which are found at work. So, is working remotely a good or bad thing?  

It's tricky. 

A few notes from the research: 

Collaboration: Research pinpoints five key factors needed for effective remote collaboration. 1) Have the employees worked in the office in the past? 2) Do they have similar work styles? 3) Do they get along? 4) Do they have technology that helps them collaborate? 5) Do they know how to use the technology? If just one factor is missing, collaboration — and, hence, success — can suffer. 

Productivity: A two-year Stanford study of call-center employees in China found at-home staffers had a 13% bump in performance, including more minutes worked per shift, thanks to fewer breaks and sick days. Jobs that focus on solo productivity appear especially suited for WFHing.

Isolation: A Cornell team found working remotely can lead to feelings of social and professional isolation. Plus, remote workers can miss out on professional opportunities. 

Engagement: A worldwide study of 2,000 employees and managers found remote workers are less engaged with their companies. Five percent always or very often see themselves sticking with their employer throughout their entire career. That number is almost 33% for office workers.

So, is it smart to take a job working from home? There is no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends mostly on what type of work needs to get done and your future within the company.