Return-to-office mandates just got another vote in their favor: A new study says WFH results in 18% less productivity.


The ongoing debate surrounding workers returning to the office has revolved around the topic of productivity. While some workers argue that they are more productive when working remotely, some managers assert that employees are more productive in an office setting. Moreover, some individuals even believe that working from home should be discouraged. A recent study conducted by economists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Los Angeles, and circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research, aimed to shed light on this issue. The study focused on data-entry workers in Chennai, India, and compared two groups: one working from the office and the other working from home, over an eight-week period.

The key finding of the study indicates that those who worked from home were 18% less productive than those working from the office. To recruit participants for the study, the researchers posted job advertisements for entry-level data jobs in local newspapers. They then observed a total of 235 workers, randomly dividing them into two groups based on skill level and preference for either working from home or the office, among other characteristics. Both groups were assigned identical tasks, resources, and goals, and asked to work approximately 35 hours per week. However, workers in the office were constrained to a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, while those working from home had more flexibility in choosing their work hours. To ensure that the workers were not outsourcing their tasks, the researchers took low-resolution pictures of the remote workers every 15 minutes using a laptop camera provided to them. 

The main metric used to measure productivity in the study was "net typing speed," defined as the number of correct entries typed per minute. The study also assessed worker accuracy by comparing the ratio of correct data entries to total entries, as well as idle times. The choice to focus on data-entry workers was motivated by their prevalence in India, the fact that the job does not require high-level skills, its suitability for both remote and office settings, and the relative ease of collecting detailed productivity and output measures for this occupation.

It's worth noting that the findings might be influenced by the unique cultural and environmental conditions in Chennai, India. The authors of the study elucidated that homes in developing countries like India tend to be smaller, more crowded, hotter, and subjected to higher noise pollution, all of which could impact productivity when working from home. 

Challenges in communication that arise from remote work could also contribute to reduced productivity for remote workers. According to a separate study conducted at Microsoft, which observed over 60,000 staff members transitioning from office work to remote work, employees became "more siloed" and were less able to form new connections compared to pre-pandemic times. Although they did form stronger bonds with their immediate team members, they spent 25% less time collaborating across different groups. Moreover, younger workers may face additional difficulties in feeling included during virtual meetings, as indicated by a recent survey.

Ultimately, employee satisfaction appears to be highest when flexibility around their work schedule is provided. Last year, employees in remote-hybrid roles tended to be the most content. However, this new data could potentially bolster the argument made by some technology executives for returning employees to the office. For example, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy mandated corporate employees to spend a minimum of three days a week in the office, starting on May 1. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg's Meta has requested that most employees return to the office for three days a week.   

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