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3 ways to make working from home work — for everyone

Working from HomeWorking from Home
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is one of the most prominent women CEOs with a STEM background.Photograph by Peter Kramer— NBC/AP

A majority of U.S. workers say they’d like to work from home at least part of the time. Many see it as critical to work/life balance — a reason Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, herself a new mom, was criticized so harshly for rolling back Yahoo’s telecommuting policy last year. There are plenty of upsides for an employee liberated from a commute, but if you’re considering a telecommuting policy for your organization, you may share some of Mayer’s qualms.

Will remote employees work or shirk? Will they be as plugged in as on-site workers? Who should telecommute and who shouldn’t?

A new study done by researchers at Stanford University and Beijing University sheds light on these questions. The researchers examined Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, and looked at what happened when call center workers interested in working from home were randomly assigned to telecommute 4 days per week and come into the office 1 day per week, or to come in to the office 5 days per week.

Over a nine month period, the home-based workers achieved a 13 percent performance increase. They worked more minutes during their scheduled shifts, and answered more calls per minute worked. Ctrip was so impressed with the results that the company opened up telecommuting as an option for many of its non-managerial employees.

To be sure, answering phone calls isn’t the same as inventing new products. But a few lessons the researchers drew from Ctrip’s experiment could help other organizations achieve similar benefits, while avoiding potential pitfalls.

  1. Don’t make telecommuting either/or. The Ctrip employees who worked from home didn’t disappear for nine months. The four-at-home, one-at-the-office schedule allowed for in-person interaction. Firms employing knowledge workers may shy from remote work because “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” as the famous 2013 Yahoo memo ending work-from-home arrangements said. But firms need innovation and productivity. One option might be to set core office hours — say, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday — in which people are expected to be on site. If people want to work from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays they could. (The reason to make Mondays and Fridays in-office days is to avoid the temptation — real or imagined — that employees will turn WFH days into long weekends).
  1. Let employees experiment — and change their minds. Telecommuting is increasingly popular, but most people are still rookies at the practice. They don’t know if they’d be distracted by the TV, or if the relative quiet of a home office would enable focus. While Ctrip was thrilled with the initial 13 percent performance increase, the real benefits came after the initial 9 months when the company let people revisit the decision. About half of WFH employees changed their minds (about a third of the in-office control group elected to go home). The good news is that “Workers with relatively worse performance at home over the nine month experiment period returned to the office, while those who performed well at home stayed at home,” the researchers noted. This resulted in an even larger 22 percent performance increase for the WFH group. In many organizations, WFH arrangements must be formally asked for and approved, and may be perceived as career changing. The Ctrip experience shows that there’s something to be said for just letting employees try it out and see how it goes. If someone discovers that working from home is not what she thought it would be, welcome her back to the office without drawing any larger conclusions about the practice.
  1. Let managers work from home. Most leaders can get their heads around the idea that individual contributors can work from home on occasion. But many still assume that managers must be onsite, supervising people who are there. At Ctrip during this experiment, as at many companies, managers could not work from home. The reasoning for this is questionable; many teams are distributed these days, so managers and employees already work in different locations. That said, the Ctrip prohibition had a side effect. Home-based workers earned fewer promotions than in-office counterparts with the same performance scores. One possibility is that home-based employes are “out of sight, out of mind,” the authors noted, but another likely possibility is that high-performing telecommuters chose not to pursue promotions for a simple reason: they’d have to give their perk up. If you’d like your top people to climb the ladder, requiring happy telecommuters to sit in a cubicle means many will take themselves out of consideration for leadership roles. For a company as a whole, that’s not a win.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of 168 Hours, and the forthcoming book Their Own Sweet Time: How Successful Women Build Lives That Work.