What does the data really say about working from home?

Employer Brand
The WFH debate as understood in 2023
By 
Bryn Snyder
July 5, 2023
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto
Employer Brand
The WFH debate as understood in 2023
By 
Bryn Snyder
July 5, 2023

In a Malcolm Gladwell podcast interview from July of 2022, I (and many others) was struck by a lack of data with the claims being made from the New York Times Best Selling author. Amongst those claims were:

“It’s very hard to feel necessary when you’re physically disconnected…” “It’s not in your best interest to work at home…”

It appears these claims were informed by more emotionally charged statements Gladwell went on to make, such as:

“If you’re just sitting in your pajamas is that the work-life balance you want to live?”
"Don’t you want to feel part of something?”
"If it’s just a paycheck what have you reduced your life to?”

The reaction to this interview was mixed, with anecdotes about the joys and dangers of working from home coming out from both. But it made us wonder...

What does the data really say? That’s what we’re here to unpack.

WFH: The Good, the Bad, and the Not-So-Ugly

Like all good researchers, let’s start by defining our terms:

  • Work from home (WFH) – working from home 5 days a week
  • Hybrid – coming in-person at least 1 day a week
  • In-person – coming in person all 5 days of the week

Productivity

An important distinction may be to first separate the question of perception of productivity and actual measurable productivity (the latter being more difficult to measure).

Regarding actual measurable productivity, one study shows that when comparing work from home vs. work from anywhere employees we see a 4.4% increase in productivity. The same author of this study, Raj Choudhury, HBS professor, when asked directly about mandating in-person work as the pandemic winds down explains why he believes it to be “a terrible idea” in a 2021 Freakonomics episode:

The case is that for the individual worker, [return to in-person] would be taking away the flexibility that workers are craving, especially women. There's  tons of research  which has shown that in the past, women have borne the brunt of dual-career situations... Work-from-anywhere allows companies to hire from anywhere and create a more inclusive workforce based on gender, based on disabilities.

We also know from Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Standford, in yet another 2022 Freakonomics episode investigating this same question in a study titled “How Hybrid working from home works out”:

Employees were dramatically happier being allowed to work from home two days a week. You can see this in surveys. Maybe more convincingly, you see it in quit rates. They fell by a third. 

This study also found a productivity increased (as measured by lines of code written) by about 8%, which is not insignificant.

So, from the perspective of what the research says, one could claim it’s in everyone’s best interest to move to more flexible work models, should the tasks required from the work support it.

Office Culture & Belonging

Regarding the need to “feel part of something,” from a worker’s perspective, this is important, but in a McKinsey “Great Attrition, Great Attraction” survey, “Meaningful Work” is outranked by “Workplace flexibility, adequate total compensation package, and sustainable work expectations” as the top reasons why people accepted their current job.

Regarding the question of physical disconnection, this is a lot trickier because personal preference is essentially split. A 2021 World Economic Forum-Ipsos survey found that 52% agree that they “miss being around coworkers” and 37% agree that they feel disengaged from work when working from home, but you also see 30% who would “consider looking for another job given the same salary and responsibility if expected to work away from home full time.”  

And I would claim that this is where we find ourselves today right sizing in-office vs. remote schedules and determining the tools to best serve this split audience: creating hybrid tools to better engage those feeling disconnected (like virtual water coolers), while still providing the ability for those who feel perfectly connected from home the ability to do their thing.

Managers vs. Employees

Finally, a recurring theme in the research was power dynamics, with employees advocating for more WFH arrangements and managers/leadership advocating for more in-person. And it makes sense, as the economist Bloom referenced above notes how quickly these changes have come about:

Working from home was doubling roughly every 15 years before pandemic, and it’s now gone up threefold in the space of two years. That’s almost 50 years of change compressed into two years. So I’m not that surprised that it’s taken a number of managers 10, 15 months to get comfortable with it.

And to return to Malcolm Gladwell’s claims, his podcast publishing company, Pushkin, was founded in 2018. With only two years of experience as a leader, then thrown into the pandemic and the rapid rate at which the labor market was transforming, it’s no surprise why he would have made the claims he did in the summer of 2022. He was overwhelmed. And rightfully so.

But considering all the data we now have, taking a step back from these emotional statements, it is clear that we are never going back to a 100% in-office work life.  

Nor is it in our best interest—as workers, managers, or leaders—to do so.

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