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The Productivity Implications of Working from Home Across 150,000 Employees

Are we more productive at the office or at home? Researchers from the University of Chicago published data on the productivity trends across 150,000 employees of a large IT services company to answer that question. It’s the first time I’ve seen analysis on the same business through the period. The business had deployed software to monitor employee behavior before COVID and used it throughout.

Quoting from the paper: WFH reduced total commuting time among US workers by more than 60 million hours. So, did we accomplish more by commuting to our kitchen counter instead of the office park?

Location Hours Worked per Day Output Productivity
Office 5.08 100.82 1.36
Home 7.04 100.30 1.11

Workers accomplished the same amount but spent 2 hours more per day (7h vs 5h) at the office. So despite a reduction in commute hours, this company’s productivity declined (defining productivity as output per hour.)

Activity WF Office WF Home
Working hours 44.7 49.3
After hours 9.64 12.98
Focus hours 34.49 32.73
Collaboration hours 10.2 11.07
Manager meetings 3.97 5.48
Emails 23.6 25.26

Let’s get more granular. When working from home, employees spend 5h per week more working, more after hours, with fewer focus hours, more meetings with managers, and more time on email. But that’s not the final word.

Here’s the tricky part: the standard deviations on these figures are substantial. For example, focus hours have standard deviations of 9.2 and 9.9. What does that mean? In short, the data isn’t strong enough to make a case that WFO is superior to WFH (working-from-home) or vice-versa.

The research delves into other topics including the impact of children on men’s and women’s productivity working from home, differences for managers and individual contributors' productivity, and fluctuations in internal and external meeting volumes that are worth exploring.

This is the first report of undoubtedly many on the subject. The tradeoffs between different environments will be debated often in the next few years by executives and people leaders globally. The data isn’t clear; there’s just too much variance to draw broad conclusions on whether the office or home are more productive from this analysis.

Rather than asking broadly which venue is better, we might ask which is better when and for whom? In short, the optimal answer is nuanced, and likely team-specific rather than a blanket policy. Both systems can work. But they might require different management techniques and styles.