Does Working-From-Home Really Work?

Our blog recently explored the disconnect between the media view on working from home (WFH) and the popular view of flexibility as expressed by most employees. Most people enjoy more flexibility in their work environment, so it sometimes feels odd to see the media – especially newspapers – saying that a return to 2019 is what we should all be wishing for.

The underlying question for employers and employees is really ‘does working-from-home really work?’

The simple answer is that it depends. The problem is that there are a number of variables measuring success. It may look different depending on your perspective, employer or employee? It may look different depending on the demographic mix of your workforce – parents have different needs compared to young employees just starting their career. It may also just be different because of the type of job – some types of career have traditionally relied in in-person mentoring and guidance and they may not have figured out a better way to train new recruits.

On top of all these uncertainties are the outcomes – how do you really measure WFH success? Are employees more satisfied? Do more of them stay for longer so your recruitment costs go down? Does it make you a more attractive employer so it’s easier to find people? Does it reduce employee stress?

All the above is true, but the emphasis will change from one company to another. Prior to the Covid pandemic we surveyed a whole bunch of WFH employees to see how they were feeling. The results are interesting because they highlight some of the WFH advantages that employees really value.

For example, 70.7% actively chose home working to improve their work-life balance. 68.2% did not want to waste their day commuting to work. In fact, 85.9% confirmed that they incur no work travel costs at all now.

50.5% confirmed that they can work multiple shifts during a day, which shows that WFH is about flexibility – not just avoiding a commute. By working from home it is possible to work a few hours, take a break to manage some other responsibilities (kids or other caring tasks), and then do another shift later in the day.

Only 2% of the survey respondents met colleagues in-person daily, which is to be expected as their work is based from home, but it’s interesting to see that 79.2% confirm that they enjoy in-person meet-ups with colleagues at least every month.

On the corporate side of the results, our survey found that business continuity works far better – Covid reinforced that point – scheduling flexibility is far easier with workers based at home, employees are happier and more productive, and there is a dramatic reduction in the corporate carbon footprint.

That was 2020. So what is the latest research saying? Professor Nick Bloom from Stanford University is one of the best-known experts on companies that use WFH employees – he and his team have been researching this in detail for over a decade now. They regularly publish their latest research on the website

The latest paper was published in June 2023, so it’s still fairly recent. In terms of employee expectations it is clear that all over the world most employees wants flexible work arrangements. A survey of over 42,000 people showed that the average employee wants to work a minimum of around 2 days away from the office – most employers are still offering less flexibility than employees now want.

But WFH also changes attitudes to work. Professor Bloom published different analysis of how employees react to sickness. Of those expected to be in their office, 76% will push on and go to work even when they are sick. 39% will still work if they can stay at home. This demonstrates that the power of presenteeism remains strong – if work is office based then it remains important to just be seen, even if you are too sick to be productive.

The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted that when it’s hard to find skilled people, flexibility over working arrangements is the easiest way to attract more recruits. Forget increasing pay, just allow your team the flexibility to stay at home when they want and you will attract more people.

European and US data on productivity is also closely correlated with an increase in working from home. The more that companies facilitate flexible working, the more productive their employees are. This has accelerated since the pandemic forced many more companies to explore home working options.

We know from discussions with our own clients that they love the WFH options provided by Sensée. An often-repeated figure is an efficiency gain of about 30% when working with customer service advisers based in their own home.

But efficiency is not the main driver here. We started out by asking whether WFH really works? What are the academics saying? What is the evidence from detailed research and what are our own employees saying?

It’s easy to find individual examples of employment that can’t be performed from home. Anything that needs in-person attendance by default, such as a doctor or shop worker, can’t even be discussed or compared. However, for office-based professional jobs – such as customer service – there is now a mountain of evidence showing that employees are happier with more flexibility and this also works out better for the employer too.

Pockets of the media are still calling for a return to 2019, but with all this evidence now available the simple response to all these headlines is now just a simple, why?

People Want Flexible Jobs But The Media Keeps Telling Us ‘Get Back To Normal’ – Who Is Right?

Individual employees have different opinions about working from home (WFH). Some believe it is more productive and saves them time wasted during a commute. Others believe that it isn’t possible to concentrate on work at home. The presenter of ‘Wake Up To Money’ on BBC Radio 5 could recently be heard saying that when he tries working from home he spends all day on Netflix.

This variation in personal opinion usually depends on personal experience. If you ask a group of friends this question then it’s likely you will get a variety of responses – unless all your friends are drawn from people with the same type of job.

So what has the media been saying? 

Through the pandemic there was plenty of discussion and argument about the government response, but there was generally broad agreement on working from home. It reduced exposure to the virus so it was a good idea at that time. Now there is a more mixed response.

Although the Washington Post is based in the US, there was a very interesting recent opinion piece by Michael Bloomberg – founder of the Bloomberg media company and former mayor of New York City. Mr Bloomberg almost yells at the reader to get back to normal. He says: “The pandemic is over. Excuses for allowing offices to sit empty should end, too.” His own company is reducing all flexibility and expecting people to be back in the office once again.

This negativity about working from home has also been reflected in The Economist. A June 2023 article titled ‘The working-from-home illusion fades’ reports that new research shows a 4% decline in efficiency for companies that allow employees to work from home.

The Daily Mail reported in May 2023 that almost half of the UK Civil Service calls their residence their main workplace. The first line of the story called the numbers ‘shocking figures.’ It’s easy to determine what the Daily Mail thinks of home-based government employees because the story states ‘also known as the blob’ when referring to the Civil Service.

If you scan the headlines there is a lot of anger at the continued availability of flexible working options – including the right to work from home. These leading media outlets continually attack organisations that are allowing employees to work from home and Michael Bloomberg’s views have been echoed in the UK by cabinet ministers and British business leaders.

But why all this anger?

Most people that are not worried about filling an expensive office seem to think that flexibility is good. Even the headline writers surely value some flexibility in their own work environment? Data from LinkedIn indicates that a third of British employees would quit if their employer insisted on a complete return to the office.

It is now two years since the last Covid lockdown in the UK. Very few employers insisted on a return to the practices of 2019. Flexibility and the ability to work from home when in-person work is not essential is now seen as a right by most  – despite all those negative headlines.

The UK is something of a paradox though. We have retained more work from home flexibility than any other country in Europe and yet we also work more hours than almost all of our neighbours. The WFH debate is actually far more complex than those media headlines might lead readers to believe. Many younger workers prefer to visit an office because it creates social opportunities – a pint after work – and parents with young children value the freedom to not commute. There are as many reasons to support working from home or working from an office as there are employees. 

However, the consensus is that allowing employees the flexibility to choose should be retained as the future for everyone. A July 2023 government press release was headlined: “Millions to benefit from new flexible working measures.”

This was the announcement that the Flexible Working Bill has now been passed into law. It grants employees the flexibility over where and when they work and the right to make requests for flexible work options is available from day one in a new job. Different jobs and different preferences and responsibilities mean that the reality is different for everyone – being flexible is the option that offers the best outcomes for most employees.

The UK government has officially backed flexibility and made it law. Most employees welcome flexibility – it’s optional so those who prefer working from an office also have that choice. The data from most studies of working from home demonstrate that it is easier to hire people when you offer flexible work options, it’s more productive, and people suffer less stress. In general, all the research indicators show that the more flexibility offered, the better the outcomes.

How does the overwhelmingly positive academic research into work flexibility and the new Flexible Working Bill square with the endless calls from headline writers in the media urging us all to just ‘get back to normal!’? 

Perhaps there is an editorial agenda that is not obvious – advertiser preference or just the editorial opinion that ‘normal’ work is performed at a physical place of work? Or perhaps it is just the media reflecting a traditional view of ‘work’ and ‘home’ and failing to appreciate the modern reality – most people are embracing flexibility and don’t look back at the old days with rose-tinted glasses. Work is now the tasks we undertake, regardless of whether it is done inside an office or factory.

Whatever the reason, the media looks out of touch. British employees are not rushing back to commuter trains and a rushed sandwich at a desk. Flexible working is here to stay – even the government has made sure of that.

(CCMA Webinar) Hybrid Working in the Contact Centre 2024

Date: Thu 14 Sep 2023
Time: 12:00 – 13:00
Chair: Leigh Hopwood, CCMA

Hybrid working is now the norm in the contact centre industry. It’s not unusual for an operation to offer frontline colleagues the opportunity to work-from-home for some, if not most of their working time. Is there a genuine best practice approach to hybrid working?

We’ll explore what the fundamentals of hybrid working are, the models that are surfacing as most effective and the challenges and opportunities hybrid working is bringing to the contact centre in 2023 and beyond.

Here’s what the debate will include:

  • Building team morale through engagement
  • Recruitment and retention in a hybrid world
  • Coaching, learning and career development
  • Scheduling and forecasting with flexible working

To help us have an interactive debate that will furnish you with ideas and inspiration, we have brought together some of our industry leaders who have both experience and opinions on this. Join Leigh as she leads the discussion with Paul Whymark, COO, Sensée, and a panel of contact centre leaders.

Register for the event