Company leaders are always trying to figure out ways to keep company morale high, and it’s usually even better if those methods also save the business money. As technology has improved, a growing number of companies have experimented with letting employees work from home.
However, some people wonder if going that route will mean workers don’t get as much done as they would by staying in the office. Since working at home offers much more freedom than the alternative, does it cause productivity to plummet? Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, and a graduate student named James Liang set out to answer that very question.
Giving the Opportunity to Call Center Employees
Liang is a co-founder of a Chinese travel website called Ctrip, so he didn’t have to look very far to find subjects for the study. He gave half his website’s call center employees the chance to work from home for nine months. The others stayed in the office as usual to act as the control group.
Initially, Ctrip executives thought they might be able to save space at the office and not have to buy as much furniture by letting some employees work from home. They expected a drop in employee productivity caused by working from home but figured the advantages of saving money and space would be worthwhile.
Productivity Peaked Rather Than Plummeting
Ctrip executives were very pleased and surprised to discover the telecommuting employees who worked from home actually answered 13.5 percent more calls than the staff members who stayed in the office. As far as savings on office furniture and space, each employee who took part in the telecommuting experiment saved Ctrip an average of $1,900.
Employee Retention Better Among the Telecommuters, Too
Besides aiming to keep employees happy, company heads usually want to encourage good workers to plan for long-term careers. The study showed employees of the Ctrip call center who stayed at home to work were half as likely to quit their jobs than the people who came to work in the office. As you might expect, the employees at home also reported higher job satisfaction levels.
What Made Productivity Go Up?
Bloom and Liang believe one-third of the telecommuters’ productivity boost came from the fact that home environments are generally quieter than workplaces. Particularly in a call center role, that makes it easier to focus on calls. Also, employees who work by themselves in their homes can’t get distracted by break room chatter.
The other two-thirds of the productivity increase was likely because the telecommuting employees worked longer hours than the workers who stayed on site. They started earlier and took shorter breaks. Those workers also didn’t have to worry about potentially lengthy commutes that could make them late to start a shift.
Working From Home Isn’t For Everyone
The researchers clarified although the telecommuters at Ctrip kept productivity levels high across the whole nine-month period, that might have been partly because the group was self-selected. Self-selection meant participants were already very motivated to succeed. People who characteristically need a lot of direction at work or find it hard to complete tasks without supervision probably aren’t suited for at-home opportunities.
Some people assert working from home makes workers more likely to get lazy and fail to meet targets. Although this study turns that perception on its head, it’s also worth keeping in mind call center jobs generally work well for telecommuting, especially as technology options increase.
Calls can be routed almost anywhere, and it’s easy to track metrics to make sure employees hit targets. Telecommuting doesn’t always work best, but at least in the case of Ctrip, many workers got to realize it’s an ideal option for them.
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