Examining Telecommuting the Scientific Way

A trial at a company in China finds telecommuting workers are more productive than their counterparts in the office

Many of us long to leave the cubicle farm, even for a day or two each week
Many of us long to leave the cubicle farm, even for a day or two each week Courtesy of flickr user ste3ve

If you’re trying to convince your boss to let you telecommute, you quickly run into a data problem. That is, there isn’t a lot of it. Oh, there are plenty of studies, but many of them are theoretical or anecdotal. What’s really needed is an experiment, with large numbers and a control group, like what is done when researchers test new medicines.

Well, we’ve lucked out, as someone has actually run that experiment, as Slate noted this week. A group of researchers at Stanford University partnered with a large (>12,000 employees) travel agency in China that was founded by a former Stanford Ph.D. student. The company’s chairman was curious about whether instituting a telecommuting policy would work for his employees and what kind of effect it would have. So they used employees in the company’s call center–the people who handled phone inquiries and booked trips–to test the questions (the results haven’t been peer reviewed yet, but they can be seen in this presentation ).

A call went out for volunteers, and 508 of the 996 employees in the group spoke up. Of those, 255 qualified for the study; they had the right space at home and enough experience at the company to be trusted on their own. The company then held a lottery, and employees with even-number birthdays were allowed to telecommute four out of five shifts a week, and those with odd-number birthdays worked solely out of the office. Like a medical trial, this setup gave the researchers an experimental (telecommuting) group and a control (office) group, which could easily be compared.

What the researchers found should hearten those of us who’d like to telecommute, even once in a while. After a few weeks of the experiment, it was clear that the telecommuters were performing better than their counterparts in the office. They took more calls (it was quieter and there were fewer distractions at home) and worked more hours (they lost less time to late arrivals and sick breaks) and more days (fewer sick days). This translated into greater profits for the company because more calls equaled more sales. The telecommuters were also less likely to quit their jobs, which meant less turnover for the company.

The company considered the experiment so successful that they implemented a wider telecommuting policy. But Slate reports that not everyone in the experiment chose to continue telecommuting; they valued the daily interactions with their workmates more than they disliked their commutes or other downsides of going into the office every day.

Clearly telecommuting is not for everyone. Another factor to consider might be how much a person’s family life interferes with their job, and vice versa. A new study in the Journal of Business and Psychology, for example, found that people who experience a lot of conflict between their family and work priorities suffered more exhaustion when they telecommuted, whether they stuck to traditional work hours or had more flexible schedules. In other words, people who had problems separating the work and personal parts of their lives found it just increased their stress levels when they combined the two at home.

But perhaps I should point out that work-family conflicts aren’t a problem for me, so I’d be delighted to telecommute.

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