Working From Home Doesn't Hurt Productivity, Study Finds

Working from home is not just a question of productivity, but also of sustainability.

Hybrid office with people zooming
Does this work?.

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

A new study published in IOS Press from researchers at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health shows that working remotely or from home does not negatively affect employee productivity. This is particularly relevant and timely as companies try to drag employees kicking and screaming back to the office.

Working from home is not just a question of productivity, but also of sustainability. As I noted in an earlier post, "Every square foot of glass and steel office building or concrete parking garage that is not built is a plus for the environment, as is every drive that isn't taken to the office or, for that matter, every highway that isn't expanded to accommodate more commuters."

The Texas A&M team studied employees of a Fortune 500 company in Houston that had to close its corporate offices for a seven-month period in response to Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The company conveniently installed RSIGuard software on employees' computers, which was designed to help reduce repetitive stress injuries. It also just happened to track "total number of hours worked per employee, total active work time, keyboard use per active minute, mouse usage per active minute, words typed per hour, and number of typographical errors per word typed."

According to the press release, the study "offers important insights into information workers who have become increasingly used to and interested in working remotely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic."

“In the future, there will be a greater percentage of the workforce who is involved in some sort of office-style technology work activities,” said Mark Benden, the director of the school’s Ergonomics Center. “Almost all of the study’s employees were right back up to the same level of output as they were doing before Hurricane Harvey. This is a huge message right now for employers because we’re having national debates about whether or not employees should be able to work remotely or in a hybrid schedule.”

The study covered employees that were only home for seven months. As many people now have been at it for over two years, no doubt there will be many studies to come and other factors in play besides just keystrokes and productivity.

But it is also becoming clear that many people do not want to go back to the office. According to Matthew Boyle of Bloomberg, "Even the most inflexible bosses are softening their return-to-office expectations." This includes Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, who is "one of the most vocal critics of remote work, arguing that it’s no substitute for the spontaneous idea generation that results from bumping into colleagues at the coffee machine." Even he has given up, after resolutely pushing ahead to demolish his headquarters and replacing it with a bigger building that probably won't even be needed.

Boyle writes:

"Many white-collar workplaces are making similar retreats as their employees stubbornly stick to working from home while struggling with childcare, the grind of commuting and worries about rising Covid-19 cases. Bosses are wary of taking punitive action against those who aren't following their ambitious so-called RTO plans, fearing it will backfire in today’s tight labor market. That leaves them to reevaluate their carefully crafted strategies and reconsider what is a realistic long-term approach to in-person work."

Employees who have come back to the office are complaining they are commuting to the office just to spend half their day on Zoom calls, which is what is going to continue to happen in a hybrid work world.

Meanwhile, back at Texas A&M, the researchers conclude companies should accept the situation and ensure that their employees have decent working conditions. The researchers write: "In balancing future remote work policies, employers should consider employee access to quiet workspace, other family responsibilities, provision of high-speed connections, access to ergonomically correct furnishings, and other potential imbalances to access, recruitment, and retention that remote work could have on the health and careers of certain workers."

From a carbon emissions point of view, compared to fully office-based or remote, the hybrid office might be the worst of both worlds. Given the problems of getting everyone around a table versus a Zoom screen, it might be from a management viewpoint as well. From a sustainable design point of view, there is that duplication of resources that futurist philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller noted decades ago:

"Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time.
Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time.
Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.
It’s time we gave this some thought."