Alan A. Cavaiola Ph.D.

Impossible to Please

Working from Home: For Better or Worse?

New York Times article shows new insights.

Posted Sep 04, 2014

The study cited in the article was financed by the National Institute of Health and the Centers of Disease Control and the goal of the study was to examine whether workers would have an easier time managing work stress if they had more control over their schedules and were allowed to work from home.

Not surprisingly, it appears that among those working from home, those who had more control over their schedules had actually doubled their productivity, which greatly surpassed that of office workers.  

Professor Erin Kelly, a sociology professor from the Dept of Sociology at the University of Minnesota indicated that one of the things that people who telecommuted found helpful in increasing their productivity was that their day was not taken up by what they referred to as “low value meetings”. 

Many corporations and other organizations often bombard their employees with mindless, brain-numbing meetings that will drone on for hours, often accomplishing nothing. One worker commented how their boss would go on for hours talking about his kid’s soccer game and would even bring in pictures which were included in the powerpoint presentation. On the one hand, the boss might have been trying to appear more human to his staff, yet on the other, it was wasted time that was totally irrelevant to the purpose of the meeting. 

Another problem with staff meetings is that while having a set agenda is helpful this can also stifle creativity. Communication via e-mails from home can often alleviate the problem of “low value meetings” but not entirely. The other problem with office setting work is that there are numerous interruptions which can detract from focus as well as creativity.  For example, if I were writing this blog at my university office, I would guarantee that I would have had at least four or five phone and personal appearance interruptions not to mention e-mails requiring somewhat immediate responses,  in the time it took me to write this paragraph. So productivity does depend on having quiet time to focus and concentrate.

So, before you run to your boss and demand to work from home, there are some caveats that should be mentioned regarding telecommuting.  First, for many home is not necessarily free from distractions either, especially if you have a spouse/partner at home, or kids (and/or dogs) running around demanding your attention. For those working from home, it often becomes necessary to place boundaries on your time and availability in order to get work done.  For example, when my kids were younger I found one way to get work done and not take time away from them was wake up earlier than they did so I’d have uninterrupted work time. Others find it helpful to head to their local café rather than even attempt to work from home given all the distractions.

On the other hand, Korkki points out in her NY Times article there are some types of work (and creativity) that is enhanced and increased by virtue of interaction with others.  I guess this would constitute a “high value” type meeting vs those mind-numbing meetings that one may be forced to sit through.  

At a recent conference of the European Association of Occupational Health Psychologists which convened at the University of London this past April (2014), one of the presenter talked about wi-fi cafes that cater to people who work from home who seek out interaction with others. What is so unique about this concept is that individuals who join these meetings often come from different professions and have vastly different skill sets.  Creativity is often bolstered when someone looks at an issue or problem from a fresh perspective.

Professor Kimberly D. Elsbach, a management professor from the University of California, Davis points out that workers who spend more time in the office are often perceived as being more dependable and more responsible than those who spend less physical time at the workplace. So the message here is that if you work additional hours you’re more likely to be perceived as dedicated and committed (Korrki, 2014). 

It is not surprising however, there are many studies that indicate that extra work doesn’t always translate into extra productivity. Instead those who work long hours either become adept at creating an impression they working hard or they spend much of their day interacting with others while saving actual work tasks for when others have gone home for the day.  For individuals like this we often recommend that they “work smarter, not harder” i.e. that they structure their work hours better and try to cut down on extraneous interruptions that distract them from work tasks. Time management skills are important to master whether you’re working from home or working in an office or some other workplace setting.

Korrki, Phyllis (August 24, 2014) Yes, flexible hours ease stress. But is everyone on board?

            New York Times, Business section, August 24, 2014 pg 5.