Home office has (no) positive effects on productivity and work-life balance

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Working from home (referred to as home office, mobile working or teleworking) is part of more and more employees‘ everyday life. According to a Bitkom survey, over one third of all companies offer their employees the opportunity to work remotely. But does working from home only have advantages, such as a positive work-life balance, or does research prove the opposite?

By Maria Frick

In Germany every fourth employee is provided the opportunity to regularly work from home. However, numbers are stagnating. Already for a couple of years it has been discussed both in public and inside organisations in what way working from home can lead to a loss in productivity. There is no clear line in the corporate landscape regarding this issue. Conclusively evaluating the decision to offer the opportunity to work from home and the lists of pros and cons that have been created from the perspective of employees as well as companies remains the task of the respective HR manager.

Critical voices from economy and most recently even from politics are emerging repeatedly pointing to the potentially negative effects due to deterioration of workplace relations among colleagues. Moreover, the reduction of creative potential due to limited social interaction is being emphasised. Oftentimes, social isolation and tendencies of self-exploitation are highlighted by employee representatives. On the other hand, working from home may increase productivity, raise job satisfaction and employer attractiveness (Biemann & Weckmüller, 2015).

When looking at the scientifically proven facts regarding this topic one can find a wide range of individual studies that each present favourable and unfavourable results for remote work. In a meta-analysis from 2007, Gajendran and Harrison evaluated the results of 46 individual studies. Among other things, they investigated how productivity of employees working from home changes over time. Overall, there is a slightly positive effect (0.19). While employees‘ self-report remains mostly neutral, a positive effect can be found when analysing assessments of supervisors or objective performance measures. Employers‘ fear of home office and trust-based working hours leading to less work effort cannot be found. Work effort in trust-based working hours averages at 1.5 hours more per week than regulated working hours (Beckmann & Cornelissen, 2014).

Less social interaction, increased autonomy

Overall, there is no proof for reduced quality of relationships with colleagues and supervisors (Gajendran & Harrison, 2007); however, when the complete amount of working hours is done from home, negative effects can be found. Predominant home office tasks lead to reduced social interaction with colleagues, raise perceived isolation and ultimately slightly reduce job satisfaction (Biemann & Weckmüller, 2015; Virick et al., 2010).

A strong reason for working from home is the improved compatibility of work and private life. For perceived work-life balance experienced autonomy of the employee matters a lot. When an employee perceives themselves as autonomous, there are slightly positive individual effects, the effect of job satisfaction rises only slightly (0.10), according to Gajendran and Harrison (2007). A similarly missing effect appears when looking at gender and family situation. There are no differences between women and men as well as between employees with and without a family (Possenriede & Plantenga, 2014). Considering that many organisations and initiatives focus especially on the compatability of work and family as a goal of measures to make things more flexible, this is surprising.
It can be concluded that economy and especially the individual study designs can prove both the advantages and disadvantages or rather positive and negative effects regarding home office activities. With growing digitalisation, flexibilisation of working hours and digital interconnectivity, there will certainly be a further increase in employees working from home (Bitkom, 2019).

Employees and employers need to continuously agree on specific regulations for working remotely. For a positive employee experience and modern ways of working organisations need to survey their employees about which work environment is best for them in order to deliver optimal performance. These desires must then be harmonised with the demands of the organisation. Organisations like Netflix, that offer employees not only autonomy regarding working hours and work location but also regarding the amount of paid holidays, are considered as pioneering for the future of work among HR practitioners.

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