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Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment (2013) (nber.org)
51 points by brownbat on Apr 17, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments

Sometimes I think of the work from home debate as a variation on the closed door issue... forgot who said it: the person with the door closed gets more work done in the short term, but in the long term seems to work on slightly the wrong thing (because of reduced communication).

Working from home is very similar to working with the door closed.

I don't think it's correct to assume that working from home results in reduced communication, communication takes on different forms but good communication out of the office is equally as much of a challenge as good communication inside the office.

Both require a smart approach to communication, both are negatively affected by too little or too much.

The best thing we did outside the office was short term to-do lists in Trello (one list per team member, limited to around 5-6 items for the day.) This has a lot of the benefits of a stand-up meeting, but is very useful because it's updated through the day and you can easily see what everyone's working on right now. We use this to complement our task management system (Jira) and have been very happy with the results so far.

Apart from that, the rest of our communication requirements are covered with Google Apps (email, groups, chat, video hangouts with screen sharing for adhoc comms and meetings) and we haven't had any more communication issues than when we used to all be in the office together.

> good communication out of the office is equally as much of a challenge as good communication inside the office

Working from home may have a bunch of advantages, but it's pretty tough to believe that it's anywhere near equal in your ability to communicate. Even if you had a permanent skype/hangouts connection, you still have a much lower fidelity communication medium than face-to-face.

It depends on the company. As a remote worker at a 90% remote tech company of ~1000 employees, I have experienced much better communication here than at any other 90% in-office tech company of similar size.

The key here is "good" communication. A 90% in-office company will have lots more communication than a 90% remote company. But hardly any of that communication is getting written down, recorded, or shared among potential stakeholders (on a an internal mailing list, IRC channel, or video meeting for example). A 90% remote company communicates in ways that are more inclusive, robust, and efficient.

A thousand workers, 90% remote - wow! Can you tell us more? Does the company have any official comment on this (presumably it's a fairly fundamental tenet for the owners?)

Have there been any studies that have looked into this? I've been a remote worker for the past two years, and honestly haven't felt communication to be a problem. It definitely needs the company to have a culture that supports remote workers though.

Interesting, who creates the to do lists in Trello? The team member or team leader? If the latter, do they call the team member to discuss in advance or do they hash the detailed requirements out on Trello by adding comments to the to do?

Everyone manages their own lists, having a single person manage the lists would probably be a micromanagement nightmare for both the manager and the employees.

We all have visibility over all the lists so if we feel anyone has prioritisation wrong we just discuss it and the person will re-prioritise if it's deemed necessary.

Note that we still use other task systems to manage overall priorities, for development we use Jira and that's the single source of truth for development prioritisation. The Trello lists are for short term personal prioritisation and are very malleable, and encompass personal tasks that one would work through.

Cool thanks for the reply!

Richard Hamming: http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html

> I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance.

I'm a Unix sysadmin in London, paid about £50k (a pretty middling salary for the job). I need to work from home on an ad-hoc basis, due to a chronically ill partner and a small child to take care of - typically a day or two a week. Frankly, the ad-hoc WFH is work £10-15k on its own.

I've had entire months done from home when it was necessary. This requires a much more organised approach than just staggering along to the office and working on autopilot. Communication is something you need to make damn sure you actively pursue. I have had the disconcertingly strange thought "it's Monday 9am, damn I wish I was at the office right now ..." because Monday is a very effective day to show up around our work and liaise with people in real time.

I have a natural tendency to be a surly asshole. So one of the most productive things I've ever done in my job is to treat public relations as about half the job (which it is) and every email like a communication to a friendly but incisive journalist. This has worked out really well.

tl;dr If you want your work from home to work out, COMMUNICATE. COMMUNICATE. COMMUNICATE.


"Call center employees who volunteered to WFH were randomly assigned to work from home or in the office for 9 months. 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).

Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction and experienced less turnover, but their promotion rate conditional on performance fell. "

Pay attention to the last sentence.

The study just reinforces what everyone knows after working a few places with office politics, that promotions for performance (and raises) are often due to how much people like the recipient.

When you just do your job and don't socialize, it is significantly harder to get promoted.

Remote is not the route to promotion. It does many have other benefits. Make this choice consciously.

Maybe in a big company that doesn't have a majority of remote workers or somewhere that remote is a new concept. The company where I work is ~70% remote and has been since the beginning and there has never been an issue with promotions dependent on being the office or not. A lot of this may have to do with our relatively flat hierarchy though, a "promotion" with us is mostly a raise and going from Junior dev to Senior dev, and the only positions "higher" than that are executives. I definitely could imagine PM type positions being harder to get as a remote employee.

Assuming office politics/relationships are the reason for this, this effect would of course be eliminated if everyone was working remotely.

Yeah, this is why I wouldn't work from home. At least, not full time. If you're not physically at the office people tend to forget you.

Are promotions what you're optimising for?

You can have a nice career in this industry without ever receiving a promotion from an employer. It's easier to handle promotions on your own by switching jobs from time to time. It's a lot easier to negotiate a new gig that pays $20k more per year than it is to negotiate that as a raise from your employer.

In my view, if my company overlooks me for promotion because I'm living in the countryside, skipping three hours of daily commuting, and otherwise enjoying a much better quality of life, that's not something I'm going to worry about too much. If I fall behind market, I'll bring it up with them and move on if necessary.

It's not just promotions. It's pay raises and bonuses. It's influence to get on the most interesting projects.

Also, everywhere I've been that had layoffs the telecommuters were the first to go, regardless of their skills. The managers don't feel any personal attachment to you.

I'm with you. I had clumped raises and bonuses in with promotions as "things not worth fighting for within a company." If you want more stuff, you go find another gig. That's just how it works in this industry.

Interesting projects would seem to work the same, in my experience. They're out there. Just not necessarily at your current company.

Also note that productivity gains doubled to 22% when workers were allowed to self-select.

Came here to note this as well. That sentence is extremely revealing.

I've heard similar studies about shift work. The night shift can be more productive, but the day shift get all the promotions.

Management comes in in the morning and sees night shift people when they're exhausted and slow, then sees day shift people finalizing night shift team's work in the first hour of the day.

I've seen the pros/cons of working from home.

At my current job I can choose whether to work from home or not. Some days I'll spend the whole days at the office, some days I'll spend at home, and sometimes I'll do half and half. I like the "half and half" strategy because it gets some time in for the organic discussions that happen and the office and time for serious work that is better with silence.

Tried working from home for two weeks straight, and I just got cabin fever. Ironically it may be more difficult for introverts to work from home for long periods since they may be less likely to try to maintain contacts outside of work.

It helps if the workforce is really distributed. Before, a few on the core team were in the office, but the other lead on the project was in a city about an hour away, and we had others working out of two other states and Nova Scotia. Now, I'm separated from a different team by a few time zones, and the only ones in the office are new to the team, so I expect to be working from home more. It's also mostly open-source work, so I wouldn't interact with most collaborators in-person anyway.

Regardless of personal pros/cons, it's good for an organization to allow work from home so that they get access to a larger talent pool. It may be harder with a startup, but that's just speculation on my part.

I've been working full time both from an office and from home. Too much time spent in both places can be stressful, for me at least.

I feel less motivated from home after a while, since being surrounded by co-workers keeps me focus on completing objectives.

If I have to choose, I'd work neither from home or an office, but in a co-working space. A coffee shop would do as well :)

for me? I get a lot more done in the office, not because I work more effectively, but because I put in more hours. There is social pressure to work, so I'm not spending my time on, hah, hacker news. When I work from home, I generally put in way fewer hours, because I do visit hacker news, and that ain't work. I don't lie about my hours; I'm a contractor, and I just put a much smaller number on my timesheet; but for most employers? that's no consolation. They've budgeted X; charging them less than X doesn't really help them. giving them less work than they budgeted for does hurt them.

If I go to work? Being in the office puts me under social pressure to actually work. I put in a lot more hours. And yeah, you get some of my suboptimal hours when I'm having a hard time focusing, but for most employers? they seem to prefer that to just getting a few of my best hours in the working from home situation.

On the other hand, for me? callcenter work would be pretty perfect for working from home, because I'm not going to wander off while I'm on the phone with someone. Work is driven by the pressure from the person on the other end of the phone.

From that perspective, this experiment might not carry over to programming work for the sort of people who have a hard time focusing.

Note: most "We work 80 hours a week" environments, where people hang out and read facebook or what have you at work, are just as bad for me as being at home, because if the people around me aren't working, then there's no pressure for me to work, and in that case, you might as well save the money on the office, again, unless it is interrupt driven work. I'd do fine in that sort of office if I'm IT or some other job where someone comes up to me and asks me to help them solve something quick.

I've been working remotely for the past three years. The greatest benefit was time saved from the lack of commute. Work requiring deep concentration is a lot easier, but I found it harder to influence others in the company not within my team. There isn't an adequate replacement for chats in the kitchen during breaks, where engineers can mingle with finance/marketing/etc in a casual environment.

As a grad student working on my thesis, I totally understand why my future boss doesn't want me to work from home.

How do you guys do this?

Thesis is gruesome work, at least to some extent. Your job hopefully will be something you enjoy. And having worked first in an office for a few years, you end up appreciating working remotely much more...

Not in the article, but hugely relevant: "Take care of your own time, just be here when I need you." Practical advice, and with meetings planned in advance perfectly actionable.

It has worked for me for the past 5 years. I no longer work for anyone, but when I did, I was able to get a lot more work done. With no commute time, I saved money on gas as well.

The downside is that I never really got to know my co-workers or manager and when I had issues with the boss, I could never see if my manager had my back because of the lack of face-to-face communication. We were also all in different states and many in different countries.

Real human contact still can't be fully replaced by Text messages or Skype. The plus was that it made it really easy for me to quit when my own business took off because I really didn't feel any emotional attachment to my job.

I've been working remotely full-time for the past 2 years, and before that I took regular breaks of a week or two, to work outside of the office.

I get a lot more done when I'm outside of the office. I track the time of how much actual work I do, and it is regularly 7 or 8 hours a day - I never did this much work in the office. You need self discipline to do this, but I find it's a lot easier to work from home as there are too many distractions in an office that were outside of my control. Working in an office with set hours I felt compelled to stay until 6pm even if I didn't feel like doing anything productive, now I'm free to take a break for an hour or so to recharge and continue working afterwards (yes, taking a break does help!).

I think whether communication is going to be a problem or not is very dependant on your company culture. The company I worked for when I first started working remotely did everything face-to-face and hardly anything was written down, as such it was hard. I'm now working for a company with various offices and remote workers worldwide, my team is distributed across 5 different timezones (with a 13.5 hour difference), and it works a lot better. We have daily standups and bi-weekly planning meetings (over Skype, just audio), if something isn't clear we just have an impromptu 5 minute call. We use JIRA and Confluence which are both pretty horrible, but it's good to know that there is one place to find everything and exactly what is going on.

I don't feel the real human element is an issue. Work has always been separate from the rest of my life, so I have always had friends outside of work.

> I don't feel the real human element is an issue.

I've been remote since 2009, and sometimes the team dynamics can get a bit rocky. Having a regular (2-4x a year) meeting where all the remotes on a team come face to face does wonders to address this. It's worked best for me when the team rents out a whole house and spends a week together working out of it and cooking for each other. Lots of fun, and you get a much better feeling for each others' sense of humor, etc.

One of the teams I work remote for has regular F2F meetings too. We don't rent out a house together (I wouldn't like that, one reason I remote is I like my personal space) but we'll spend the days at a co-working space, and go out together during the evenings for dinner.

We also flew in several of our clients for a dinner we organized, so that the clients could meet all of the team including remote crew as well. That was a brilliant idea.

This is a great idea. Do you guys rent in a holiday location neutral to you all or rotate the location around your home areas?

On the remote team I'm on, we all vote on the location each time.

Well then I hope you vote for great locations :) Hats off to ever thought of this :)

I think cycling through team member cities is best since then you have a local with you every time. Plus it's one fewer plane ticket to buy.

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