Expert Commentary

Working from home: What the research says about setting boundaries, staying productive and reshaping cities

The coronavirus pandemic forced millions of U.S. employees to begin working from home. This research provides insights on our new telework reality.

(Manny Pantoja / Unsplash)

Over the past 12 weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of employees in America to begin working from home. Before the pandemic, 2.5% of U.S. employees teleworked full-time, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Now, almost everyone who can telework is doing so.

Some economists expect the share of people teleworking full-time to remain high even after the pandemic ends. We collected a variety of research to address big questions employers, employees and cities face as America’s office workers consider the future of working from home.

Research indicates there is no one-size-fits all approach when it comes to telework arrangements. Everyone now teleworking faces challenges, from caring for children to adjusting to virtual collaboration with coworkers. Some people will be more productive working from home, some people less so.

One constant in the academic literature is that the type of work matters when it comes to whether telework arrangements are successful. People with complex jobs that can be performed independently generally fare better than those with less complex jobs that require extensive interaction with colleagues.

It’s important to remember most jobs cannot be done at home, and tens of millions of workers have temporarily or permanently lost their jobs — though the economy regained 2.5 million jobs in May. An estimated 37% of U.S. jobs are conducive to telework, according to an analysis from University of Chicago economists Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman.

Google and Facebook are two major employers that have told employees to plan on teleworking through 2020. Twitter has told employees if they can telework and want to keep teleworking, they can “do so forever.”

Work-from-home arrangements will likely expand beyond the tech world — and beyond the pandemic. Executives at about 1,750 firms from a variety of industries across the country expect 10% of full-time employees to telework every workday after the pandemic ends, according to the May monthly panel survey by economists at the Atlanta Fed, Stanford University and the University of Chicago. The executives expect 30% of their workforce to telework at least one day a week after the pandemic, triple the 10% rate before.

Keep reading to find out what the research says about employee productivity and setting boundaries while working at home, how mass teleworking could transform cities — and more.

My work and home life have completely melded. How can I set boundaries?

It’s one of the bigger questions for workers thrust into full-time telework — especially those simultaneously caring for children. Academic research can provide guidance for striking a balance.

For the paper “Strategies for Successful Telework: How Effective Employees Manage Work/Home Boundaries,” from June 2016 in Strategic HR Review, Kelly Basile and T. Alexandra Beauregard conducted 40 in-depth interviews with people teleworking full or part-time at an organization that did not have a culture of long work hours. Basile is an assistant professor of management at Emmanuel College. Beauregard is a reader in organizational psychology at Birbeck, University of London.

“When work and home activities take place in the same physical space, physical, temporal and psychological boundaries between work and home can become blurred,” Basile and Beauregard write.

The workers they interviewed use physical, time-based, behavioral and communicative strategies to set boundaries. For example, after their workday was done, full-time teleworkers with dedicated office space at home had an easier time devoting their full attention to non-work responsibilities, compared with those without a home office.

Teleworkers accountable to other responsibilities, like walking a dog or caring for children after school, had stronger work-home boundaries than those only accountable to themselves. Certain routine behaviors, like shutting down a computer at the end of the day, or turning off the ringer on a work phone, also helped establish boundaries. Those with children or spouses at home during telework time were most successful when they communicated clearly and consistently that they needed their workday to be free of household noise and interruptions.

“In organizations where after-hours communications, early meetings and weekend working are the norm, employees preferring segmentation will have difficulty establishing and maintaining boundaries between work and personal time,” Basile and Beauregard write. It’s another theme throughout the academic literature: Whether telework works for individual employees depends on company culture.

For “Toward Understanding Remote Workers’ Management of  Work-Family Boundaries: The Complexity of Workplace Embeddedness,” from December 2015 in Group and Organization Management, Kimberly Eddleston and Jay Mulki conducted 52 interviews with sales and service employees from across the U.S. who worked from home full-time. Eddleston is a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University and Mulki is an associate professor of marketing there.

Many of the interviewees worked at organizations where it was common to work more than 40 hours a week, sometimes outside of regular hours. Even though interviews were in-depth, the authors caution that because their sample is small, their findings cannot be generalized to the broader population.

Still, the findings indicate a telework divide between men and women. About 62% of the interviewees were women. Some women experienced benefits — spending time with their families while also being able to step away for urgent deadlines. But more than half of women working remotely — compared with just a tenth of men — reported their spouse didn’t respect boundaries between work and family. “You know, I get distracted by my private life,” one woman told the researchers. “It kind of interferes with my professional life.”

With an acuity applicable to today’s era of widespread coronavirus telework, Eddleston and Mulki write that “organizations should educate remote workers on the need to establish boundaries between work and family, and train these workers to resist temptations to perform work activities during family time.”

How does telework affect worker productivity?

Tens of millions of Americans are unemployed because of the new coronavirus, and data from the Bureau of Labor statistics show labor productivity is down considerably. The BLS defines labor productivity as “a measure of economic performance that compares the amount of goods and services produced (output) with the number of hours worked to produce those goods and services.”

For those who still have jobs and are teleworking, productivity can depend on personal motivation, type of work and home environment. Research indicates people who work from home can, overall, be as productive as office-dwellers.

In one widely cited November 2014 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, researchers found call center workers at a large Chinese travel agency randomly assigned to work from home four days a week for nine months increased performance 13% compared with those who stayed in the office. Attrition also halved among teleworkers. The authors note that “the job of a call center employee is particularly suitable for telecommuting. It requires neither teamwork nor in-person face time.” The company required teleworkers in the office one day a week for training on new products and services.

In “Are Telecommuters Remotely Good Citizens?” from May 2014 in Personnel Psychology, Ravi Gajendran, David Harrison and Kelly Delaney‐Klinger surveyed 323 employees from various industries, including technology, banking, health care and manufacturing. Gajendran is an associate professor of management at Florida International University. Harrison is a professor of management at the University of Texas, Austin. Delaney-Klinger is an associate professor of management at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

About 37% of the sample had a telework arrangement, with 80% of teleworkers working from home. The researchers found an association between teleworking and higher job performance ratings from supervisors. They suggest higher performance among teleworkers has to do with their finding that teleworkers believe they have more autonomy than regular commuters.

“Further, perceived autonomy is likely to be influenced by telecommuting intensity — the more extensive telecommuting is, the higher the discretion employees perceive over where and when they work,” write Gajendran, Harrison and Delaney-Klinger.

Work-from-anywhere arrangements could be even better for productivity than working from home, depending on the type of work. That’s according to “Work-From-Anywhere: The Productivity Effects of Geographic Flexibility,” a Harvard Business School working paper by Prithwiraj Choudhury, Cirrus Foroughi and Barbara Larson, released in December 2019. Work-from-home arrangements assume employees live close enough to go to the office a few days a week, or as needed, according to the authors. Work-from-anywhere arrangements let employees work remotely and physically far from their organization’s offices.

The authors exploit a natural experiment at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where in 2012 management and union representatives launched a work-from-anywhere policy. The rollout was staggered, so employees transitioned at different times from being in-office, to work-from-home, to work-from-anywhere. The authors find that patent examiners working from anywhere were 4.4% more productive than examiners working from home. All examiners had at least two years on the job.

“[Work-from-anywhere] examiners relocate to lower cost-of-living locations and we report a correlation between relocating to a below-median cost-of-living location and productivity,” Choudhury, Foroughi and Larson write. They note two limitations: Their study focuses on a single organization, and patent examiners, by and large, don’t depend on coworker interaction to do their jobs.

Flexible work arrangements could also allow some older workers to work longer, if they want to. That’s according to a January 2020 paper in the American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics. The authors surveyed 2,772 clients of The Vanguard Group, an investment company. Participants were at least 55 years old with at least $10,000 in their Vanguard accounts. The sample skews wealthier, healthier and more educated than the national population.

“The willingness to work is stronger when jobs offer a flexible choice of hours worked,” the authors find. “Individuals are willing to take substantial earnings reductions to gain an hour of flexibility.”

Won’t I miss out on office relationships and opportunities for collaboration?

A constant throughout the literature is that whether telework arrangements are successful or not depends on the type of work. One study, published February 2018 in the Journal of Business and Psychology, surveyed 273 telecommuters and supervisors from a company with a voluntary telework program. The authors found teleworkers with complex jobs had better job performance than telecommuters with less complex jobs, “and their performance increased with higher levels of telecommuting.”

Then there are individual personalities. An outgoing person, for example, might miss office camaraderie, while an introvert might relish the demise of water cooler chatter. In “Getting Away From Them All: Managing Exhaustion from Social Interaction with Telework,” from February 2017 in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Jaime Windeler, Katherine Chudoba and Rui Sundrup find that part-time telework allowed exhausted workers the chance to recover.

Windeler is an associate professor of business analytics at the University of Cincinatti. Chudoba is an associate professor of management information systems at Utah State University. Sundrup is an assistant professor of computer information systems at the University of Louisville.

Based on survey results from 258 workers from a variety of industries and regions in the U.S., the authors found workers were less exhausted when they had quality in-person interactions with coworkers. Quality is a subjective measure that “reflects an individual’s appraisal of the adequacy of support or satisfaction with interpersonal interactions,” the authors write.

But exhaustion increased as interactions became more frequent. Telework acted as a salve for office exhaustion. Participants represented the demographic characteristics of people with jobs conducive to telework and uniformly worked at small, medium and large companies. Taking a break from the office may be a good way to recharge, but collaboration remains fundamental to the human experience.

“The tendency for people to work together — to establish and run businesses, to conduct research projects, and to create and share music — is a foundation of human culture,” write then-Stanford University doctoral researcher Priyanka Carr and Stanford associate psychology professor Gregory Walton in a July 2014 paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “For individuals, working with others affords enormous social and personal benefits.”

Will my career growth suffer if I’m not able to go to the office?

Some research suggests workers who want flexibility, like a telework option, may face stigma in the workplace. But the current widespread telework situation is unprecedented. If everyone at a company is teleworking, then, by definition, regular commuters can’t level stigma toward teleworkers.

If work life ends up looking similar to pre-COVID times, with some number of workers still regularly going to an office and others going in sometimes or not at all, promotions may hinge on what’s normal for each employee’s work unit. That’s according to “Is There a Price Telecommuters Pay?” from February 2020 in the Journal of Vocational Behavior by Timothy Golden and Kimberly Eddleston. Golden is a professor of enterprise management and organization at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Eddleston is the Northeastern University professor mentioned earlier.

The authors analyzed survey results and salary and promotion growth data from a sample of 405 employees of a technology services firm. Roughly equal numbers were women and men.

People who teleworked extensively received more promotions when teleworking was part of their work unit’s culture and when they did extra work outside regular hours. Extensive teleworkers who did extra work and had the opportunity for face-to-face interactions with their supervisors also saw higher salary growth.

“Indeed, while work context factors examined in our study tended to decrease career penalties for telecommuters including those who telecommuted extensively, the greatest career benefits were attained by those who only occasionally telecommuted,” Golden and Eddleston write.

What will happen to cities if office workers don’t come back?

It’s another big question that may come down to whether coronavirus telework arrangements persist — and, if they do, how city leaders fill the void from lost office rent and ancillary business revenue, like workers buying lunch at cafes.

Research shows telework may affect whether people live in cities or suburbs. More telework could mean more urban sprawl, with people moving away from city cores and reducing density. In a simulated mid-sized city where every worker teleworks at least one day a week, transportation costs decrease 20% and geographic area expands by about 26% — according to “Telework: Urban Form, Energy Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Implications,” by William Larson and Weihua Zhao in Economic Inquiry from April 2017.

Larson is a senior economist at the Federal Housing Finance Agency and Zhao is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Louisville. Their simulated city is based on characteristics of the Charlotte, Indianapolis, Kansas City and San Antonio metropolitan areas, including average geographic area, average number of occupied units and median household income.

Greenhouse gas emissions fall slightly and housing units become slightly larger in Larson and Zhao’s telework simulation. Another potential side effect: “While telework increases the welfare of those who telework, it also makes those who do not telework better off through reduced congestion,” they write.

The authors of “Working from Home and the Willingness to Accept a Longer Commute,” from July 2018 in The Annals of Regional Science, also hint at a link between teleworking and urban sprawl. Based on surveys of nearly 7,500 Dutch workers spanning 2002 to 2014, they find people working from home at least one day per month were willing to accept 5% longer commute times, on average. Researchers report similar findings from the Netherlands in a September 2007 paper in the Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, with telecommuters more likely than regular commuters to live on the edge of or outside cities.

On the other hand, if fewer workers drive every day into city centers, that could free up space for more bicycling and public transportation, according to E&E News, an energy and environmental news outlet.

Check out our other coronavirus-related resources, including tips on covering biomedical research preprints and a roundup of research that looks at how infectious disease outbreaks affect people’s mental health. Also, don’t miss our feature on rural broadband in the time of coronavirus.

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