If you’re a business owner, executive or manager with a lot of employees working in an office, you’ve likely been agonizing over WFH — work from home. I know we have. It’s a constant conversation among managers at Arkansas Business Publishing Group.
Before the pandemic, we accommodated a handful of remote employees, valued people who logged on from Georgia, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and northwest Arkansas — even as far away as the United Kingdom.
This is an Opinion
But those were largely exceptions to the rule that, at the home office in Little Rock, most workers at all levels of the company were expected to be in the office from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The pandemic changed that, of course. Working from home was a necessary precaution in 2020, before vaccines and booster shots shielded most people from the worst of COVID-19. But more than two years later, WFH has gone from safeguard to an amenity more for attracting and retaining a workforce than protecting anyone’s health.
At ABPG, our owner and CEO, Mitch Bettis, has taken a flexible approach to office hours, letting managers and their direct reports make decisions about whether and how often they come to the office. He admits that it’s taken some getting used to. While some at our office wholeheartedly embrace full-time WFH or hybrid schedules, others worry about what WFH means for productivity, corporate culture, innovation and employee turnover.
Do remote employees feel connected to — or as invested in — their place of employment? And is their work inferior to those in the office?
A working paper issued last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research aims to answer those questions and others about working from home.
The study surveyed 1,612 engineers, marketing and finance employees at Trip.com, a publicly traded global travel agent based in Shanghai. Trip.com executives, the study says, wanted to use hybrid work-from-home schedules “to improve employee job satisfaction to reduce attrition and ease hiring.” But some managers were concerned that employees would “underperform on their days at home.” So Trip decided to evaluate a hybrid WFH system over six months before deciding whether to institute it companywide. (Trip.com has about 35,000 employees.)
The study outlines four key findings:
► WFH reduced attrition rates by 35% and improved self-reported work satisfaction scores, “highlighting how employees place a considerable value on this amenity.” How considerable? Authors think that to employees, it’s the equivalent of “about a 4% to 8% wage increase.”
► WFH reduced hours worked on home days but increased it on other workdays and the weekend, highlighting how WFH alters the working week.
► WFH employees increased individual messaging and group video call communication, even when in the office, “reflecting the impact of remote work on working patterns.”
► “While there was no significant impact of WFH on performance ratings or promotions, lines of code written increased by 8%, and employees’ self- assessed productivity was up 1.8%, suggesting a small positive impact.”
The results around employee satisfaction are particularly interesting, with signs that employees on the hybrid schedule were more likely to recommend the company to friends, and had higher levels of “work satisfaction, life satisfaction and work-life balance” than those who worked in-office full time. The lower attrition rate means “a more stable workforce which can directly reduce training and hiring costs and indirectly boost productivity,” the study says.
Of the four key findings, the second caught my eye. Deep in the study, the authors note that hybrid employees “appear to work about 0.8 hours less a week” than those in-office. But looking at data around performance, promotions and increased coding output, the authors conclude that hybrid employees “likely work more efficiently per hour.” That’s consistent, they say, with a 2014 study that found employees working from home “had a higher output per minute and took fewer breaks within their working day.”
Given those results, Trip.com in February extended hybrid WFH schedules to its entire workforce.
While there’s still a lot we don’t know about WFH, the study’s conclusions might give just enough comfort to business leaders still feeling iffy about it.
You can get the full NBER report at arkansasbusiness.com/nber-wfh.