March 5, 2021
NACA Director of Finance & Operations
The impact of COVID-19 on the lives of virtually every human on the planet has been the hot topic in almost every communication medium since the outbreak. We were stunned by it at first, then found ourselves with no choice but to adapt to the “new normal.” For many employers, NACA and its members included, it was necessary to have all but essential staff work from home rather than risk spreading the virus in the workplace. Long before working from home became necessary, there were mixed opinions about whether remote workers were as productive as onsite workers, with much research done and many articles published on the subject.
One such research study was done by an economist by the name of Nicholas Bloom. Bloom was recently interviewed about his research on an NPR program called “Hidden Brain.” The weekly broadcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and uses many types of research, as well as science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, and the biases that shape our choices. In the interview, Bloom discussed research related to whether working remotely was more productive or less so than working at the workplace.
Ctrip, a Chinese travel agency employing 16,000 people, rolled out the option to work from home because its number of employees was increasing faster than its physical workspace could expand to accommodate them. Ctrip thought offering the option to work remotely might be a solution and invited Bloom to assist with a nine-month experiment on the increase or decrease in productivity among those working remotely. In his article “Does Working from Home Work?,” Bloom shared some surprising results.
There were concerns that there might be more “shirking from home” than working from home, so the company decided that the savings from having to provide physical space would offset the lower productivity that would likely result from remote working. Results from the study showed home working led to a 13% performance increase. Some of the factors that resulted in the increased performance was a quieter and more convenient working environment. Without the interruptions that occur in the workplace, including kitchen and hallway talk, coworkers dropping in to ask questions, there were fewer distractions to disrupt work.
At the end of the study, the option was given to employees to work from home or onsite. Many of those who chose to work remotely decided to return to the workplace. They missed the interaction and in person collaboration with other employees. There was also a finding that remote workers had a lower percentage of advancement due to the lack of face-to-face interaction with superiors…an “out of sight, out of mind” sort of phenomenon.
As the novel coronavirus has made it essential to allow or require many employees to work from home, there will likely be more research studies to follow. The changes that occurred during 2020 will no doubt alter the biases on the part of many employers regarding productivity, or lack thereof, among employees working remotely. The year 2020 was an unplanned experiment in and of itself in the pros and cons of working remotely that will likely alter employers’ decisions far into the future.
Brenda Baker is the director of finance and operations at the National Association for Campus Activities. Baker has dedicated her 40-year career to managing associations' financial resources and services.
Related Professional Competency: Volunteer & Staff Management