With email on your phone, Skype on your iPad and Dropbox on your laptop, working anytime and anywhere has become a staple of the modern business environment, especially in the knowledge economy. Still, even with such flexibility now commonplace, many large companies have shied away from widespread telecommuting policies and distributed workforces. While evidence shows that telecommuting can improve productivity and employee satisfaction, some businesses still have lingering concerns that remote workers will shirk their responsibilities given such flexibility and lack of supervision.
One major Chinese company recently decided to find out for sure. In perhaps the largest-scale remote work study conducted to date, CTrip—China’s largest travel agency with a $5 billion valuation on NASDAQ and 13,000 employees—set out to investigate the benefits, drawbacks and feasibility of implementing a widespread work-from-home policy.
CTrip selected 255 call-center employees to participate in the experiment, out of those who volunteered and met predetermined criteria for their home work space and company tenure. Half stayed in the office as a control group, while half worked from home four out of five days a week, on the same shifts as their in-office counterparts. The experiment lasted a full nine months.
- Those who worked from home had significantly higher performance than before, with a productivity increase of 13%.
- The attrition rate of the home workers dropped 50% compared to the control group, and they reported significantly higher work satisfaction.
- The company saved approximately $2,000 per employee working at home (due to increased productivity, office cost savings, and lower turnover), leading them to expand the work-from-home initiative to the entire firm with “an aggressive poster campaign to persuade employees to take up the home-working.”
Other interesting findings were as follows:
- After the experiment ended, the work-from-home group was allowed to choose whether to continue working from home or to return to the office. Almost half decided to return to the office, which “led to much larger long-run impacts from working at home as workers with relatively better performance at home remained at home while those performing relatively poorly at home returned to the office.” In fact, the researchers estimated that the positive impact detailed above was likely doubled after the experiment.
- The work-from-home group reported “significantly higher positive attitude and less work exhaustion,” largely because they didn’t have to commute.
- The theory that working from home negatively impacts your career due to the absence of face time was disproved. Looking at the duration of the experiment and the nine months following it (a total of 18 months), the researchers determined that there was no negative impact on the telecommuting employees’ promotion rates.
Theory in Practice
oDesk knows a little bit about this topic. In addition to being an online work platform, oDesk has been rocking Work-From-Home-Tuesdays for many years. Similar to the Chinese company’s post-experiment policy, oDesk’s “WFH” day is not required, but approximately 75% of the company participates.
"I really like working from home,” said Mollie, oDesk’s Director of Customer Marketing. “It leads to some really focused working time; I specifically set aside projects that need a lot of concentration and a big chunk of time. It also helps me maintain a little sanity in my life, knowing there's one day that you can a little flexible."
And not only does it make employees happy, but it is beneficial strategically.
"Work-from-home Tuesday is awesome,” said oDesk CEO Gary Swart. “We love it. It gives us the opportunity to empathize with what our users are facing every day, not to mention that our employees love it and they get more work done. You have a greater appreciation for what remote work is about when you have to walk in the shoes of people who work remotely. It helps us build a better product for our clients."
Does your company have a work-from-home policy? If so, what results have you seen?