People who love working from home are right: It’s more productive

Step into my office.
Step into my office.
Image: Reuters/Rebecca Naden
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Working from home is a concept that gladdens some hearts and makes others sink. Businesses feel the same, and make different choices. Some, like global campaigning group Avaaz or airline company JetBlue, embrace working from home. Others—most famously Yahoo—ban it.

Of course, the internet made instant mass communication, and scaleable home businesses, possible long ago, but some remote-working tools, like online hangouts, video conferencing and group work platforms, have only recently become good enough to function really well for large scattered teams.

So you’re one of those people who’s tempted to work from home. But does that mean it’s right for you and your employer? Here are some pros and cons to consider.

1.) Seeing more of your loved ones (but not too much)

Having children is one big reason to work from home, and some “family-friendly” policies are designed to allow employees to weave together work and home life. Parents who work from home can have breakfast with their kids rather than rushing for a train, and be there when children arrive home from school. A 2010 study found that family-friendly policies make people happier. They also make firms more successful, but only when combined with other effective management practices.

While more family time may be attractive, working from home doesn’t mean avoiding childcare bills. Mumsnet, an online forum for parents, is unequivocal: “You will be doing yourself and your employers / clients no good at all if you are working from your laptop at the soft play centre…looking after children is one job, doing a paid job is another.”

2.) Controlling your environment

For anyone who has worked in overheated, noisy or windowless office, being master of one’s own space is pure joy. You can look out of the window at the first leaves of Spring and—even better—open that window for some fresh air. Best of all, it’s peaceful. In  a 2014 Stanford study of China’s largest travel agency, Ctrip, home workers made 4% more calls than their office counterparts, which the study’s authors attributed to “a quieter and more convenient working environment.”

Exercise can also be easier. Increasingly we’re told to get up from our desks, walk more, stretch, and give our eyes a break from the screen. Many offices don’t make that easy. (Try simply lying on the office floor for a couple of back-relaxing minutes, and see what reaction you get).

3.) Losing the commute

If you spend hours on London’s overstuffed Tube each day, trek across a polluted Beijing or drive through rush-hour traffic to get to work, canceling the commute sounds like paradise. And it is—in some ways. You get whole, juicy hours handed back to you every day. But for some, those hours are then spent working rather than relaxing. Imposing boundaries becomes important, and finding ways to delineate workday from free time can help.

Another downside: Walking and cycling to work provides exercise, and the journey plus change of location can make for a useful break between work time and leisure. Home workers have to find ways to get out, jogging in the morning or arranging late-afternoon meetings away from the home, to break the day into distinct sections. Like so much of the working-from-home juggling act, it all comes down to…

4.) Discipline. It’s important. And loneliness can be a problem

Perhaps the word most associated with working from home is discipline. The need for self-discipline, to keep concentrating without the oversight of a watchful manager, is often touted. For some, that’s spurious: A quiet room at home, free from distractions, can be a better place to concentrate than a busy office. For others, it’s truly a challenge. The presence and energy of colleagues can spur some people on to work harder and achieve more.

At the end of the Ctrip study, half the people who had worked from home elected to go back to the office, especially those who had found lack of social contact difficult. Working from home isn’t for everyone.

After weighing the pros and cons, you still want to give home working a try. Now, comes the hard part: Selling it to your boss.

There’s plenty of theorizing about whether home working makes for lazier employees or happier ones, a more coherent team or one with no identity, but the Ctrip study was one of the first to apply scientific testing conditions to the question. The authors divided a group of 249 Shanghai travel center workers into home-working and control groups and monitored them over nine months. It’s conclusion: Home working led to a 13% performance increase. What’s more, Ctrip saved $2,000 a year per employee on office space, higher performance, and fewer people quitting.

The company rolled out the option to the whole all workers as a result of the study. Only some chose to, but in the self-selected group of home workers, productivity rose by 22%. Good evidence for your employer (unless that happens to be Yahoo).