I am a diligent worker who follows through on my commitments. I'm quick to get started on tasks, usually avoid getting sidetracked and have a fairly optimistic outlook, although I can be plagued by self-doubt. An introvert, I prefer working alone and value autonomy. At times I can be untrusting and skeptical of other people's motives, and I have a tendency to become frustrated by and anxious about work-related difficulties. Sometimes I struggle to balance work and life.
This is not a self-critique. It's a summary of my Distributed Worker Personality Profiler, a psychometric assessment created by Work EvOHlution, a company founded by an organizational psychologist whose goal is to use scientific evidence to help people excel at flexible work arrangements. Employees and managers use it to determine how naturally suited an individual is to working outside a traditional office. The Profiler flags potential pitfalls and provides advice on how to circumvent them. For example, although I am very satisfied working from home as a freelance journalist, the assessment points out that some of my personality quirks may present a challenge. If an editor is stressing me out with what I perceive as unrealistic demands, my knee-jerk reaction to fire off a frustrated e-mail could make the situation worse. Fortunately, as the assessment's customized feedback advises, there are work-arounds. I can pause before responding, go burn off some steam at the gym, or write an angry draft e-mail and then delete it.
The test's creators believe that telecommuting is here to stay and that almost anyone, with the proper guidance and support, can excel at it. Indeed, “telework”—also known as flexplace, smart work, distributed work and blended working—has never been more popular, thanks to fast Internet connections, video-chat capabilities, smartphones and other technologies.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of Americans who worked at home at least one day a week shot up by 35 percent from 1997 to 2010—from 9.2 million to 13.4 million people. Other estimates are even higher. According to Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting company specializing in emerging workplace strategies, in 2015 about a quarter of the U.S. workforce clocked some hours away from the office. Another 80 to 90 percent of those people whose jobs would allow it said they would like to work from home two or three days a week.
Global trends are similar. In a 2011 survey of more than 18,500 workers in 24 countries, 35 percent telecommuted at least once a week and more than 60 percent reported that they would consider working remotely full-time, if given the chance.
Companies have taken note of these trends and are eager to know how telework affects the bottom line and what factors predict whether someone working from home will thrive or sink. But even as teleworking becomes more mainstream, many managers remain loath to let professional charges out of their sight, thinking that remote work fosters slacking.
The science, however, suggests that such fears are largely unfounded. Off-site workers may be more productive and satisfied with their jobs than colleagues tethered to cubicles, evidence reveals. And although some personality types lend themselves better than others to telework, a little guidance, research shows, can help just about anyone succeed.
For society as a whole, the potential benefits are numerous. Employers can save on office costs and increase profits brought by more efficient employees; fewer commuters can ease congestion and pollution; and workers can enjoy more freedom to live where they want, rather than where their job dictates.
Home Sweet Office
Working from home is sometimes mocked as “shirking from home.” Until recently, advocates of telework had no evidence to refute this perception, because no experimental studies had been carried out on remote working.
Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University, and his former Ph.D. student, James Liang, conducted a study of employees at Ctrip, a NASDAQ-listed travel agency in Shanghai that was co-founded by Liang. Bloom, Liang and their colleagues selected 249 of the company's 16,000 employees to take part in a nine-month experiment in which half the group worked from home and the rest remained in the office.
The findings, published in 2015 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, likely came as a shock to many managers. For each employee who worked from home, the firm earned an additional $1,900 annually. This boost was largely the result of savings on office rent, but in addition, those working at home were 13 percent more productive than their office-bound colleagues. Homebodies took fewer breaks, were more punctual to start work in the morning and typically finished their lunches within 30 minutes. They also reported a greater ability to concentrate and an overall higher sense of satisfaction. And they were half as likely to quit their job compared with someone who worked five days a week in the office.
Some of that extra happiness may help keep homebound workers motivated and on point, especially when the chips are down. In a 2016 Computers in Human Behavior study of 657 workers from a variety of industries, Nico W. Van Yperen, a psychologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, found that people who are high in their need for autonomy and who can blend on-site and off-site work do not lose their intrinsic motivation—that is, wanting to tackle a task because they find the job itself rewarding—as work demands increase.
In contrast, colleagues who worked in the office reported a drop in motivation when work gets tough. “If you're tired but you have to continue working because you're in the office, you feel even more strained,” Van Yperen says. “But having the flexibility to take a nap, go to the gym or play with your child—and then to continue working later—makes it easier for you to handle high demands because you can work when it's most convenient for you.”
The autonomy gained from being out of the office is one of telecommuting's greatest benefits, says Ravi Gajendran, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In a 2007 meta-analysis of 46 studies involving 12,833 employees, he and co-author psychologist David Harrison of the University of Texas at Austin found that telecommuters reported more job satisfaction, less stress and a better work-family balance. They were also less likely to express a desire to quit. A heightened sense of autonomy, Gajendran says, can explain most of these perks.
In a 2015 study, he and his colleagues found that teleworking can improve the effectiveness of workers who have strained relationships with their bosses and has no effect on the performance of employees who already get on well with their supervisor. One possible explanation, Gajendran says, is that employees who perceive themselves as being in the doghouse at work are especially eager to reciprocate any favors that provide relief from that situation—such as working from home—by stepping up their performance.
Remote work does have drawbacks, however. In the Chinese study, Bloom and his colleagues found that although at-home employees performed better, they did not receive promotions any faster than co-workers in the office. The reason for this disparity is unknown. They may be discriminated against, Bloom says, or they may be uninterested in managerial roles that require showing up at the office.
Too much time away from the workplace can hurt relationships with colleagues, Gajendran's meta-analysis suggests. Those who spend more than a few days a week outside the office tend to be unsure of where they stand with colleagues (but not with managers); on the flip side, those stuck in the office may feel “teleresentment” of employees working from home.
The best arrangements may involve a blend of remote and on-site work. Timothy Golden, an associate professor of management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, along with business professor John Veiga of the University of Connecticut, asked 321 telecommuters in professional-level jobs how often they worked remotely and how they felt about it. Their results, published in 2005, revealed that job satisfaction and remote work have a nuanced relationship. Job satisfaction increases alongside more remote work—but only to a point. After about 15 hours out of the office a week, employee satisfaction tends to plateau and then to dip (although it still remains higher than those who telecommute infrequently).
Satisfaction also depended on several other aspects of work, including how interdependent the employee was on others. “There's an optimal point where job satisfaction peaks,” Golden says. “When we think about telecommuting, we need to consider the extent to which an individual does it because that determines outcome to a large degree.”
The Perfect Profile
Remote work does not suit everyone. Construction workers, surgeons, actors, day care attendants and others have to physically be on-site. Personality also plays a role in determining whether a worker is a good fit for telecommuting.
Those who succeed at teleworking often have a strong need for autonomy, believe they are in control of their own destiny and feel confident in their work. Diligence is another important factor: people who feel a sense of duty and loyalty to their employer and who take pride in being trusted excel off-site. Introverts, who find social situations to be draining and do not mind long periods of solitude, also perform well remotely.
Meanwhile, says director of research at Work EvOHlution Thomas O'Neill, an industrial and organizational psychologist at the University of Calgary in Alberta, “those who get their energy from being around others—the social butterflies of the office—they tend to struggle in terms of satisfaction and engagement when working from a distance.” And procrastinators may lose focus when outside the conventional office.
Van Yperen and his colleagues uncovered complementary results. In a 2014 study of 348 employees working across industries, they found that people with a high need for autonomy and a low need for structure and connection to others came out on top in a self-reported survey of how effective they thought they would be if given the opportunity for blended working.
Several companies are attempting to translate these and similar findings into practical tools. The Distributed Worker Personality Profiler, which I took, asked participants to rank how strongly they agree with statements such as “I value cooperation over competition” and “I believe that my success depends on ability rather than luck.” Algorithms analyze answers to produce a ranking of an individual's predicted success—either “caution,” “moderate” or “high”—for remote work.
Even people who do not have the perfect personality profile for teleworking can still succeed at it, because “you can develop strategies to mitigate certain aspects of your profile,” says Laura Hambley, Work EvOHlution's president and a psychologist at the University of Calgary. Procrastinators can kick-start their day by beginning with tasks they are most excited about, for example, and more social people can schedule regular teleconferences and in-person coffee dates.
External factors can also interfere with a teleworker's success. A home office located above a construction site or constant interruptions from a roommate or family member would trip anyone up. In a 2006 survey of 454 part-time telecommuters, Golden found that those who worked more at home reported lower work-to-family conflicts but experienced higher family-to-work problems. In other words, for extensive telecommuters, work interfered less with their family, but the family interfered more with their work. Fortunately, there are solutions for some of these problems, too. In some cases, simply installing a door, finding child care or investing in a pair of noise-canceling headphones can help.
Off of Site, Out of Mind?
Despite growing evidence in support of telework, some managers still prefer the old way of doing things. Upper management tends to be averse to risk and change, in part because if something goes wrong they may be blamed or even fired. Some bosses fear unsupervised reports will neglect their duties—even though a large share of managers telecommute at least part-time themselves. Ego may also play a role. “Managers like to have people around because it gives them a sense of empire and status,” Gajendran says. “They also want employees in the office just because it makes things easier for them.”
Regardless of the motivation, a policy forbidding telecommuting can be harmful to a business by excluding talented staff who desire more flexible or autonomous arrangements. Businesses can get around this potential pitfall by putting top-down rules in place that outline a specific policy for teleworking, which would mean the decision to allow a particular employee to work remotely does not depend solely on a single manager's discretion.
Ideally, companies would also provide training to bosses on how to respond when an employee asks about telecommuting; how to adapt their management style for remote work; and how to set appropriate expectations. (Indeed, Work EvOHlution issues a Supervisor Companion Report to advise managers on specific support tactics. Another company, FlexMatch Suitability Assessments, offers a Manager Scorecard to test supervisor readiness for working with remote reports.)
Meanwhile some businesses are going in the opposite direction. In 2013 a leaked memo revealed that Marissa Mayer, the newly appointed CEO of Yahoo, had decided to terminate telecommuting. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” the memo, issued by the HR department, stated. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”
Days later Virgin Group founder Richard Branson wrote that he found Yahoo's decision “perplexing” and that companies that do not embrace new ways of working are missing out. Still others sided with Mayer, including then New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who commented that “telecommuting is one of the dumber ideas I've ever heard.”
Her supporters soon felt vindicated. After workers were grounded, Yahoo saw its best first quarter in four years and reported greater stability—outcomes often attributed to ending teleworking. Yet that conclusion, Stanford's Bloom says, is flawed: “Yahoo is a great example of why case studies are misleading because if you looked at it, you'd say banning working from home leads to surging stocks. But those outcomes could have been driven by something else.” In fact, Yahoo's spike in profitability was short-lived.
Whether or not Mayer's decision was the right one, there is some evidence that innovation could be stymied by telework. A small survey-based study, published in 2008, found that creative thinking took a hit when people worked remotely and that complex projects, especially ones with a tight deadline, were better suited to in-person collaborations. (To measure innovation, the researchers asked 83 employees from several industries to rate how well they agreed with statements such as “In my work, I discover new solutions for bottlenecks that remain unsolved.”) The lesson, according to Jan de Leede, an assistant professor of human resource management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and the study's lead author, is that companies should carefully consider the type of work at hand before embracing telework.
Hambley points out, however, that de Leede's results are dated. Current technologies such as GoToMeeting, WebEx and Skype for Business may circumvent obstacles that existed even five years ago and foster problem solving at a distance.
Possibly the only other examination of telecommuting's influence on innovation comes from a 2015 study of more than 900 Belgian workers. This research found that working from home is related to greater innovation but that working outside the typical nine-to-five schedule may have small negative effects on creativity.
Bloom and his colleagues hope to better identify the relation between innovation and telework with a follow-up to their China study involving workers whose jobs entail more collaboration and creativity. In the meantime, he suggests that managers interested in making the telework switch covertly pilot their own experiments. Bosses can use an event—a storm, a road closure, the Olympics—as an excuse for allowing certain employees, such as those who live in a given zip code, to work from home. Weeks or months later they can compare effectiveness of the two groups to determine if telework might be a good fit for the company. “Test it out but make sure you don't set expectations,” Bloom says. “If you tell people you're doing this, they'll work like crazy to make it worthwhile.”
Despite the holdouts, telecommuting is fast becoming just another way of being on the job. As technology allows for more meaningful digital connections, experts such as Gajendran predict that we might eventually do away with the need for certain workers to physically come together at all. In the process, employees who can excel at telework may become more attractive to managers, too.
These changes promise to shape not only the working landscape but the physical one as well. Offices could scale back; urban infrastructure could become less congested; and workers could choose to live hours from company headquarters.
Those implications may also extend to changes in how we relate to one another and interact. “We're social animals, and we've been working face-to-face for the entire evolution of humankind,” Calgary's O'Neill says. “It won't be overnight that people can adapt to this extreme mobility, but I think we are moving into an age where remote work is inevitable.”