Biz Features

A Work from Home Experiment Shows High Performers Benefit; Lower Performers Prefer the Office

by . February 18th, 2015

Is working from home all that it’s cracked up to be? Unfortunately for small biz and entrepreneurship writers trying to make a viral hit, it’s a lot more complicated than you might think.

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As a writer, I am no stranger to working from home. Writers have been doing this forever. But in case you’ve missed out on the last 30 years, the widespread availability of reliable communications links has allowed nearly anyone who works a job that doesn’t require their hands to get literally dirty to work from the (relative) comforts of their home.

Sales agents, customer service reps, engineers, analysts, coders — plenty of us have jobs that can now be feasibly done literally at an arm’s length from our TV’s and refrigerators.

So when Marissa Mayer banned working from home at Yahoo! in 2013, her move became the catalyst for an enormous amount of debate over the pros and cons of this trend. Do WFH (work-from-home) policies just make more sense in today’s connected world, or are they just a distraction that encourages employees to slack off?


The Ctrip study: One firm’s surprising WFH experience


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Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, tried testing a WFH policy for two major reasons: to reduce overhead resulting from their home base Shanghai’s rising rent rates, and to reduce their high turnover rate, which approached 50%.

Naturally, Ctrip had concerns about potential problems with implementing a WFH policy, so they ran a test for nine months in their contact center it before implementing it throughout the entire company. Stanford University professors Nick Bloom and John Roberts worked with James Liang, the co-founder and chairman of Ctrip to study the effects of the WFH in this particular instance.

The travel firm gave contact center employees with at least six months’ experience the option to work from home for four days of the week. Around half of the 508 eligible employees chose to work from home. A lottery was drawn from the 255 who opted to work from home. Those with even-numbered birthdates were allowed to do so while those with odd-numbered birthdates kept their regular office schedule to act as a control group.

Ctrip took great pains to ensure location was the only variable in the experiment. All the volunteers worked the same shifts, had the same managers, and worked with the same tools and processes as they always did.


What happened after 9 months?


Find more about the results of the experiment here.

Home workers

  • The performance of home-workers increased by 13%
  • Home-workers took fewer breaks
  • They also took fewer sick days
  • They were also more productive per minute, which surveys attributed to quieter working conditions.
  • Staff turnover was reduced
  • Higher work satisfaction was reported among home workers
  • Home workers also felt less exhausted.

Control group

  • No changes reported.

So who wouldn’t want to roll out a WFH policy for their own business, right? Ctrip’s execs were certainly impressed, and implemented the policy company-wide soon after.

To everyone’s surprise, about half the home-workers opted to go back to the office, and only 1/4th of the control group decided to work from home, even though they had previously volunteered for the initial WFH experiment.

Reasons cited by workers returning to the office include:

A huge element of self-selection was also suspected. The employees that did in fact, volunteer in the first place tended to be among the Ctrip’s highest performers, while many of the ones who chose to return were among the lower performers.

Ctrip management and hypothesized that self-motivated, focused employees were more likely to volunteer to work from home, feeling they would be better focused there, while easily distracted employees wanted to avoid the distractions of family, food, and entertainment that would be found at home.


Is it all bad?


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Clearly it isn’t. Other companies that have rolled out their own WFH policies have reported plenty of positive effects after implementation. The main issue encountered in these studies is often due to the difficultly of having a statistically randomized sample — and accurate data– thanks to the fact all enterprises and their employees experience different conditions.

In Ctrip’s case, they tested their WFH on the contact center. Everything could be easily tracked, and work isn’t necessarily collaborative most of the time. Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer cited the need for closer collaboration as the reason for doing away with Yahoo!’s WFH policy. On the other hand, there are plenty of other fields where such close collaboration may not always be needed.

For instance, WFH is a fact of life for successful freelancers in a variety of industries, from insurance sales, to software development. I myself have worked from home for about two years, as a technical writer.


Are work-from-home policies for me?


Working home isn’t exactly what everyone’s saying it is. If you work within similar contexts as Ctrip, you won’t magically become that much better than your office-bound competitors, but it’s still worth a shot. If anything, an optional WFH policy can be an excellent perk to give your employees, and can be a crucial factor in encouraging your top performers to stay with you, instead of quitting altogether.

While it’s clearly not for everyone, there are plenty of opportunities for testing WFH policies. Natural disasters, abnormal traffic conditions, and huge public events may make it difficult for employees to make it to work and provide a good way for any office-based company to test WFH ideas in the short term.

With today’s unprecedented levels of connectivity and the many possible upsides to allowing top performers to work from home, it just makes plain sense for every business to at least consider letting some employees work from home.

Heck, if Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer herself thought it was a good idea to work from home for weeks after the birth of her first child, it might not be such a bad thing after all.

Image sources: Shanghai Skyline by Pete Stewart, via Wikimedia Commons. Other images are free-to-use through CC licenses via Death to The Stock Photo

Ready to take the WFH plunge? Comment below!


 

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