Early last week Lifehacker posted a story about a recent Stanford University experiment on teleworkers in a Chinese travel agency. It turns out that those who worked from home were significantly more productive (i.e. received more calls thus booked more flights) than their office-bound counterparts. To be more precise, teleworkers logged 15% more calls overall, 4% from more calls per hour and 11% from more hours worked.
If you’re anything like me and are wondering about the details of the study the authors of the study have made their preliminary findings available to the public, which helped satisfy some of my questions about the context and measurements of the study. Here is a run-down of some the details that I found interesting:
1. Motivation – The study was conducted because the founder and CEO of the Shanghai-based company (i.e. Ctrip) wanted to know if he could make more money by allowing his employees to work from home (and as a Stanford grad he had access to willing Stanford researchers.)
2. Reasons for increased productivity – The call center offices are quite crowded, noisy, and sociable, while it’s quieter and easier to hear and concentrate at home (except during Chinese New Year when friends and family tend to come over to visit). Teleworkers were also able to work more hours overall because of time saved from late arrivals and people taking fewer sick leave days.
3. Double confirmation – The experiment charted productivity of the test group for a month before sending them home, so results not only show the productivity of the experimental telework group as compared with the office-bound control group, but also the productivity of the same group before and after working from home..
4. Pictures – Talk about a picture being worth a million words! Once you see the central call office setup, it suddenly makes a lot more sense why working from home would be more productive.
Other positive (and perhaps not so surprising) results of working from home
1. Teleworkers were less likely to quit (i.e. decreased attrition rate). This was a huge plus for Ctrip since it means they don’t have to waste as much time and resources hiring and training new workers.
2. At a general level teleworkers had a more positive work attitude, less work exhaustion, and better work-life balance.
3. Those who were older, married, had long commutes or had children were more likely to choose the telework option.
*Cultural side note on commuting in Shanghai. For workers at this level, commuting generally does not mean sitting in a nice little Ford Focus listening to NPR or an audio book as you inch your way into the city. It usually means waiting around in any kind of weather (whether it’s in sweltering heat or bone-chilling cold) just so you can fight your way onto a lurching circuitous bus packed with bodies not necessarily washed recently, all trying to stay upright and alert so as to not get picked by a thief. If you’re lucky enough to be near a Metro station, you’ll likely have a shorter ride, but it’ll be a fight each day not to get trampled by the other 7 million people in the work hour rush pushing their way into car trains that won’t fit another body. Some people may even have to do some combination of the two. Furthermore, at a cost of about 5.50 RMB (~90 U.S. cents) a day, another article notes the commute fare adds up to nearly 10% of workers’ salaries.
My own musings
1. Work isolation – According to the preliminary report, the experimental group was still required to work at least 1 of their 5 shifts at the office each week, which takes into account the problem of remote work isolation and missing face-to-face contact, an often reported complaint of working from home.
2. Type of work – Call center work duties are fairly discrete and straightforward, and workers cover specific tasks during specific shift hours which are set by their group. Virtual team research usually considers this the best type of work for distance teams. The question then is how applicable are these results to jobs that require more qualitative or collaborative tasks like those required by managers, researchers, systems analysts, or writers?
3. IT management – The experiment required home workers to have their own room at their house and spent a month ensuring that workers’ home offices had broadband and were properly set up. Most companies aren’t going to set up your home office for you, though they might provide some equipment for you, and you’re likely be stuck troubleshooting your own technical issues. Also, not everyone is so lucky to have a separate room for work at home.
4. Impact of self-selection – The experimental group was made up of volunteers who wanted to work from home, which I suppose could skew results in favor of the teleworkers. I believe the idea is that people who are forced to work from home involuntarily may not be so productive at home.
5. Chinese culture – I don’t know if this makes any difference. Maybe being in a generation of only children makes it harder to get along in the office or maybe the importance of guanxi drives people to go to the office. Perhaps those used to an authoritarian society are easier to manage, and then again, perhaps we’re all driven enough by the same motives that culture doesn’t make much of a difference.
6. Actual number of teleworkers – Interestingly at the end of the experiment, only about half of the teleworkers decided to continue telecommuting, the other half opting to brave the daily commute – possibly due to cultural and/or work isolation issues.
At the end of the day
Regardless of all these questions and suppositions, Ctrip considered the experiment so successful, that it expanded the telework experiment to other departments and regional offices. Moreover, it is planning several other experimental pilots for flexible work options that may also increase worker productivity and retention. Since they are still gathering more data from these added control groups, this is definitely an experiment to keep an eye on.
Slate magazine may have the honor of being the one to break this telework story
Researcher presentation slides from another talk
Figure 1 from Bloom, N. “Can IT improve work-life balance? Evidence from a Chinese field experiment” Very preliminary findings, Sept. 10, 2011.