No commute, no office distractions and the freedom to hold conference calls in your pyjamas — the benefits of working from home hold many attractions.
Daily commutes and chats at the coffee machine can be more productive than staying at home alone
However, a study has discovered that too much homeworking means that employees become just as unproductive as those in the office, with staff growing disgruntled about having to pay for extra heating and missing out on gossip.
The study, by the London School of Economics, said that the benefits of working from home disappeared over time for employees and companies if it was a full-time arrangement. The reason, according to Esther Canonico, from the LSE’s department of management, is that employees no longer regard homeworking as a discretionary benefit or privilege and behave accordingly. Rather than meeting deadlines early and picking up the phone quickly to prove that they are working, they revert to bad habits.
“This study provides a glimpse into a future where flexible working could become business as usual. Whereas once people saw it as a favour and felt the need to reciprocate and give back more to the organisation, in this future they will not,” she said.
Homeworking staff also start to resent that they have to pay for heating, lighting and wi-fi, forgetting that they may save from not having to commute.
Dr Canonico said that the arrangement often turned sour. “The study showed that some homeworking employees feel resentful that employers don’t pay utility bills or cover stationery costs, for example. Some managers feel homeworkers take advantage of the situation,” she said. “If the company expects homeworkers to be a lot more productive or workers expect employers to give them a lot of flexibility and not have to reciprocate in kind, one or both are likely to be disappointed.”
Those at home every day also become “socially and professionally isolated”, increasingly feeling out of touch, losing confidence in their skills and no longer able to “accurately interpret and use information”. Emails can be misinterpreted, whereas the signals are usually clear in a face-to-face meeting.
Sitting alone and focusing intently on a piece of work for several hours without a chat at the coffee machine can be negative, she said. “The intensity of homeworking accentuates the negative impact of professional isolation on job performance.”
The research, conducted among 500 staff and managers, is among the first to measure the impact of homeworking over a long period. The practice is becoming more popular, with 4.2 million employees, one in seven of the workforce, doing it some or all of the time, compared with 2.9 million in 1998. It is also increasingly associated with status and seniority. One in five managers regularly works from home.
A study in 2012 by Stanford University analysed an experiment by Ctrip, a Chinese travel company, which allowed staff to choose whether to work from home. There was a 12 per cent increase in performance, of which 8.5 per cent was staff working more minutes per shift. However, many workers missed their colleagues and returned to the office as soon the experiment ended.