Lena Anayi, John Lewis and Misa Tanaka
Since the onset of Covid-19, firms and workers have adopted and adapted to new working arrangements, which involved some workers primarily or exclusively working from home (WFH). What lessons – if any – can be drawn from this experience to inform future of work? A previous blog post examined how WFH might affect productivity. This blog post reviews more recent research on the experience of WFH during Covid, and considers what can be learnt about the impact of WFH on time use, workplace interactions and productivity.
How did WFH change time use?
While WFH during Covid, workers reallocated commuting time saved to both work and leisure. Teodorovicz et al (2021) analyse time-use survey of US knowledge workers during the Covid period and find that managers and those in larger companies tended to reallocate most of the commuting time saved to working extra hours, and within that towards more meetings. WFH during Covid was also associated with longer hours and more unpaid overtime (see Haigney et al (2021) and de Fillipis et al (2021)).
Remote workers also reallocated working hours towards less ‘traditional’ times. Based on ONS time-use surveys, Haigney et al (2021) find that workers doing some WFH tend to work more evening hours compared to those who don’t. McDermott and Hansen (2021) conclude based on real-time GitHub data of global users that during the Covid pandemic, workers tended to push work away from traditional working hours towards leisure hours.
How did WFH change workplace interactions?
Long and frequent online meetings can lead to fatigue, multi-tasking and lower engagement. Bailenson (2021) sets out four theoretical causes for ‘Zoom fatigue’: i) excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense; ii) seeing oneself during video chats leads to fatigue; iii) video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility, due to needing to remain within the webcam frame; and iii) the cognitive load is much higher in video chats, as it is harder to send and receive nonverbal cues. The survey-based study by Fauville et al (2021) confirms that higher frequency and longer duration of Zoom meetings, and shorter intervals between meetings, were associated with a higher level of fatigue during Covid. Shockley et al (2021) also report evidence from a field experiment that ‘camera on’ Zoom meetings were associated with higher levels of fatigue compared to ‘camera off’ meetings, particularly for women and new employees.
Cao et al (2021) use a large-scale telemetry survey of US Microsoft employees and a 715-person diary study, and find multi-tasking during online meetings is ubiquitous, potentially due to the ease of switching off video and audio. Multi-tasking happens more in large, long, recurring meetings, and in meetings which occur in the mornings when staff need to check for any urgent emails.
WFH can also lead to siloed communication and less collaboration. Yang et al (2022) examine data on electronic communications of US Microsoft employees over the first six months of 2020 and find that firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, and communication more asynchronous. The authors conclude that firm-wide WFH could make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.
Virtual onboarding of new joiners may be less effective, too. Based on their Global Labour Market Survey, Gartner Research (2020) found that virtual on-boarding reduces opportunities for new joiners to learn from informal interactions with peers, and diminishes a sense of belonging to an organisation.
A key unknown is whether ‘WFH career penalty’ documented in pre-Covid studies will persist (see eg Elsbach et al (2010) and Golden and Eddleston (2020)). For example, Bloom (2021) notes that mothers tend to prefer more WFH days. He argues that, if ‘WFH career penalty’ persists and workers from underrepresented groups prefer to WFH more, then allowing employees to choose their WFH schedules may harm their career progression and thus diversity.
How did WFH affect productivity?
A previous post reviewed pre-Covid research on the impact of WFH on productivity. Some studies of the Covid period suggest that WFH can hit productivity. Gibbs et al (2021) compare WFH in pre and post-Covid periods at a large Asian IT services company and find that during Covid productivity declined by 8%–19%. Künn et al (2022) found that the performance of chess players declined when competing from home during the pandemic, which the authors attribute to a less suitable home environment.
But other studies find that switching to WFH can raise productivity. Barrero et al (2021) use a survey of US workers and document that self-reported productivity is higher when WFH. As productivity is defined as output per hour worked, the effect of WFH on productivity depends on what counts as ‘working hours’: if commuting time is counted as ‘working hours’, then the estimated productivity boost from WFH is 4.1%, but if not it’s only 1%.
Effects on productivity may depend on the specific task at hand. A survey of academics by Aczel et al (2021) found that for tasks such as sharing thoughts, communicating with their team and data collection were more efficiently done in the office. By contrast, working on manuscripts, reading literature or analysing data were best done at home.
The great WFH experiment during the Covid period spurred learning and technological innovation which are likely to shape the future ways of working. Research on WFH during this period can inform this thinking, but no generic conclusions can be drawn on the impact on time use, workplace interactions or productivity for several reasons. First, Covid-specific factors such as school closures may have affected behaviour. Second, long-term effects of WFH on career progression, labour force participation and diversity are still unknown. Finally, there is little research on the impact of ‘hybrid working’ whereby some workers work from home while others work in office.
If you want to get in touch, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Comments will only appear once approved by a moderator, and are only published where a full name is supplied. Bank Underground is a blog for Bank of England staff to share views that challenge – or support – prevailing policy orthodoxies. The views expressed here are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Bank of England, or its policy committees.