Does Working from Home Work?

An important question facing workplace policy is whether there are significant differences in productivity levels between working from home and working in office?

ACI research examines this question through temporal and geographical variation in state-imposed closure of workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic to estimate whether WFH changes work patterns. The study looks into a census of public and timestamped activities of open-source software projects on the Github platform during the period between January and June 2020. If WFH increased productivity levels, there should be higher activity during the periods where their location inducted state imposed WFH measures.

Literature supporting the notion that WFH does indeed increase productivity, cites reasons such as more flexibility and autonomy, less time commuting, and less office distractions. For tech-related industries, the jobs are naturally well-suited for remote working. Reasons against this notion include lack of access to a conducive work environment at home, delays in collaborative projects due to tele-commuting, and lack of monitoring. 

The ACI paper looks at individuals who are predominantly software developers and shares two pieces of evidence. The first is that markable changes in work patterns occur in the first few days of lockdown periods, with overall productivity increasing by as much as 60%. The second finds that any positive impact of WFH disappears after accounting for changes in observable in the different WFH periods, the most optimistic impact being a 0.28% increase in productivity in collaborative workflows.

Since April 5 2021, Singapore lifted its default work from home (WFH) measures, stating that up to 75% of staff can return to the workplace at any one time, up from the previous cap of 50%. According to a Straits Times poll that was created directly after the announcement, approximately 75% of the respondents who are currently working from home do not wish to return to the workplace. However, the majority who stated a preference did not refer to productivity levels. The key reason cited to stay at home was to save time and money by not commuting and eating out, and the key reason to return to office was due to missing their colleagues.

It is interesting to see how researchers and policymakers continue this discussion and whether measures such as flexible working hours and in-office days will become more widespread, considering productivity levels remain mostly stable in both work environments.

By Sunena GUPTA

Researcher: SHEN Yan Shun, Lucas

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