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Is the five-day office week over?

Across organizations, work was most effective when employees were home 1-2 days a week, found research by Humu, a tech company run by Google's former chief of human resources

By Claire Cain Miller
Published: Jul 4, 2020

Is the five-day office week over?Employees at Box in Los Altos, Calif., April 16, 2015. The company designed it, complete with couches and a slide, to make people want to come to work. Now it will let them work from home part of the time permanently. (Matt Edge/The New York Times)

(The Upshot)

Most American office workers are in no hurry to return to the office full time, even after the coronavirus is under control. But that does not mean they want to work from home forever. The future for them, a variety of new data shows, is likely to be workweeks split between office and home.

Recent surveys show that both employees and employers support this arrangement. And research suggests that a couple of days a week at each location is the magic number to cancel out the negatives of each arrangement while reaping the benefits of both.

“You should never be thinking about full time or zero time,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University whose research has identified causal links between remote work and employee performance. “I’m a firm believer in post-COVID half time in the office.”

According to a new survey by Morning Consult, 47% of those working remotely say that once it is safe to return to work, their ideal arrangement would be to continue working from home 1-4 days a week. Forty percent would work from home every day, and just 14% would return to the office every day.

The group of workers that is able to work from home is likely to have more education, with higher incomes, and so far they have escaped the most severe job losses from the pandemic. That could change as the economy continues to suffer, which analysts said could affect work-from-home policies in different ways: Employers might panic and revert to their old ways, or encourage remote work to cut real estate costs.

In the Survey of Business Uncertainty — by the Atlanta Fed, Stanford and the University of Chicago — employers predicted that post-pandemic, 27% of their full-time employees would continue working from home, most for a few days a week. Other surveys of firms have shown that they expect at least 40% of employees to keep working remotely.

Across organizations, work was most effective when employees were home 1-2 days a week, found research by Humu, a tech company run by Google’s former chief of human resources.

“It creates a shift, where office time is for collaborative work, for innovative work, for having those meetings, and home time is for focused work,” said Stefanie Tignor, director of data and analytics at Humu, which makes tools to nudge people to improve their time at work.

Some past experiments in remote work in the United States, like at Best Buy and Yahoo, were ended because managers decided remote workers were not accountable enough and missed out on in-person collaboration.

But in research on remote work, it has been hard to prove that workers’ location caused certain effects, and to know if the effects would have been different had their competitors, partners and customers also been working from home. Also, only in the last few years has technology for video calls and virtual collaboration become more seamless.

Now, the pandemic has forced corporate America into a large-scale experiment on remote work. And so far, the results have largely been positive — even with the enormous stresses of the pandemic, including shuttered schools.

In the Morning Consult survey, conducted June 16-20 with a representative sample of 1,066 Americans who said their jobs could be done remotely, nearly two-thirds said they had enjoyed working from home, and just 20% said they had not (the rest said they did not know or had no opinion). Three-quarters are happy with how their companies have handled the transition; just 9% are not. Fifty-nine percent would be more likely to apply to a job that offered remote work.

Of the 87% who want to keep working from home some number of days a week, even after it is safe to return to the office, the most favored choice across all demographic groups is working remotely 1-4 days a week. People 18-44 are slightly more likely to want this arrangement, as are people with college degrees and higher incomes. Women are slightly more likely than men to say they want to work from home every day.

The past few months suggest that some of the assumptions about the trade-offs of working away from the office are not always true.

One example is the belief that workers are more focused and productive at home, but more creative at the office. Ideas bloom, the thinking goes, when people start impromptu conversations at a whiteboard or in the cafeteria.

The productivity piece was demonstrated in an experiment by Bloom at Stanford, in which call center employees at a Chinese travel agency were randomly assigned to work from home or not. Those who worked remotely had a 13% increase in performance, and higher work satisfaction.

In the Morning Consult survey, 49% of respondents said they were more productive working from home — even with distractions related to the pandemic — compared with 32% who said they were not (19% did not know).

But whether in-office work leads to more creativity is harder to measure. Studies of patent data have suggested that inventors benefit from being near one another, but some experts argue that remote work is good for idea generation, too, because it allows people to take breaks, exercise or think in silence.

Forty-four percent of respondents in the new survey said the quality of their work had improved while working remotely during the pandemic, compared with 27% who said it had not and 29% who did not know.

Current circumstances may be so different — with most office workers working remotely at once, and with modern tools like Slack and Zoom — that some downsides of remote work have been ameliorated.

Aaron Levie, chief executive of Box, which makes cloud collaboration software for businesses, said remote work had increased both productivity and innovation at his company. Instead of generating ideas with small groups in conference rooms or when people happen to run into one another, he said, the company is having conversations with larger and more diverse groups on Slack.

He gave the example of a new company project.

“We’ve taken what would have been a 5-to-10 person project to a 300-person idea generation machine, with people who never would have participated in this project, even interns,” he said. “It might have been the equivalent of 20 meetings in conference rooms when in reality, a Slack channel with a few good ideas might make up for all the meetings.”

Box has announced that post-pandemic, the company will have a hybrid approach, with both remote and in-person work.

Some downsides of remote work persist. Most people miss the social connections at work, the survey found. In Bloom’s study of the Chinese travel firm, half of the remote workers wanted to return to the office when the experiment ended. Their reasons were loneliness, stigma and penalties in terms of being promoted. These and other reasons are why Box and other firms want workers to eventually return in some capacity.

An ideal work setup, several say, may be one in which everyone works from home or in the office the same few days each week, and everyone knows which days are for collaboration and which are for focused work. That may be hard to achieve while the coronavirus is still a severe risk because staggered schedules are recommended to achieve physical distancing in offices.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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