A New Study Reveals What People Really Do When They Work From Home

How businesses get things done.
June 26 2012 4:43 PM

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A new study reveals what people really do when they work from home.

Is working at home good for the company and the workers?
Is working at home good for the company and the workers?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Digital technology—email and smartphones most of all—have vastly improved workers’ capacity to be productive outside of a traditional office. Even so, most white-collar work still happens in an office. In practice, modern communications technology is used just as much to link physical workplaces together—as at Slate, which maintains two offices, one in New York and one in D.C.—as to disperse them. One reason is that, according to a new survey of office workers conducted by Wakefield Research for the IT consulting company Citrix, most bosses are dubious about the telecommuting. Half of workers say their boss disapproves of remote working, and only 35 percent say it’s tolerated.

Skeptical bosses will likely have their doubts re-enforced by the same survey, which shows that 43 percent of workers say they’ve watched TV or a movie while “working” remotely, while 35 percent have done household chores, and 28 percent have cooked dinner.

Physical proximity might not be necessary for much work, but it does remain a hard-to-replace deterrent against The Price Is Right while on the clock.

My experience working primarily from home for an extended period several years back was that it’s a surprisingly efficient way to drive yourself insane. The need to make petty decisions—where to work, which chair to sit in, should I even bother to get out of bed, do I need to be wearing shoes right now—became overwhelming. I’d spend completely unreasonable amounts of time wondering what to do for lunch, and while working on a book dedicated a surprising amount of energy to meeting my self-imposed daily word quota in time to catch movie matinees.

But there is also a compelling case to make that working at home makes people much more efficient, because it allows workers to take care of annoying little chores while still getting their jobs done. Remote working—at least occasional remote working—can be great precisely because of the opportunity it affords to get a certain amount of non-work stuff done. It’s much faster to shop for groceries at a quarter to three than to stand in line during the after-work rush. Far too many people work similar schedules and want to eat dinner at dinnertime. My neighborhood supermarket turns into a nightmare from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday late afternoon, another popular shopping time, is even worse, with the aisles often featuring Soviet-style shortages of key commodities. If you just start working a bit earlier (no commute, after all) and pop by the store during a lull when lines are short, you can get both more work and more shopping done in a fixed amount of time. Even better, if more people did that, then shift workers with genuinely inflexible schedules might also be spared some line pain.

And telecommuting allows you to tackle household tasks that take up a lot of time but don’t actually involve much work. Watching laundry spin in your washer or dryer is perfectly compatible with productive work. But between the washing step and the drying step comes a time-sensitive “put the wet clothing in the drier” phase. Taking just a few minutes off from work to do the swap lets you get the chore done efficiently, and leaves your actual leisure time free for exciting activities like leaving the house. Many recipes, similarly, involve considerable periods of simmering or roasting during which it’s good to be around the house but you don’t actually have to do anything. In a “work-then-shop-then-cook-then-eat” paradigm, it’s challenging to eat anything that can’t be made quickly. But if you can simmer while you work, then a lot of household labor can be accomplished with minimal reduction in professional output.

The fact that such practices remain officially taboo reflects how far we haven’t come as a society from the days when we expected every full-time professional to be backstopped by a full-time homemaker.

More broadly the Wakefield survey suggests that employers may be missing a low-cost way to give workers something of value. Sixty-four percent of survey respondents who haven’t worked remotely “identify at least one extremely popular perk or pleasure they’d be willing to give up in order to work from home just one day a week.” The fundamental fact of the modern economy is that no matter how much technology advances or society’s wealth improves, we don’t add more hours to the day and we still need to sleep. Under the circumstances, tactics that help people save time are not only valuable but increasingly so with every passing year. Smart firms need to find ways to acknowledge that and let their employees have enough flexibility to manage their time effectively.

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