Crucial Conversations QA

Working or Shirking from Home?

As the coronavirus sends more of us home, business casual dress goes from slacks to jeans to sweats to pajamas.

Before the coronavirus, a lot of companies were hesitant to let people work from home. “Working from home” rhymes too closely with “Shirking from home.” It includes surfing, posting, grazing, running errands, crushing Candy Crush, calling your brother “just because,” rereading online stories about the coronavirus, updating your LinkedIn resume, spacing out on conference calls, and telling your boss, “I’m still waiting for Bob to get it to me so I can work on it.”

But what if working from home looked different? What if working from home made you 13% more productive, made you feel more satisfied with your job, and made you half as likely to quit?

This is exactly what was found in a 2015 Stanford study of a large Chinese travel firm called CTrip1. Researchers randomly split 249 call center employees from Shanghai into two groups. For nine months, half of them kept working at their desks as usual, and the other half were told to work from home four days a week (one day a week they came into the office). Then the researchers measured everything from the number of calls they made, to job satisfaction, to breaks taken, to sick days… everything but Facebook Likes and Candy Crush scores.

One conclusion: Working from home can make people more productive.

But wait. Before you try to sell the conference table on eBay, there’s a huge caveat from this study (aside from country and culture): These workers had very specific measures of productivity—phone calls per minute and the amount of time spent on the phone.

Whereas those in customer service, copywriting, or design might have very specific measures of productivity (dollars, calls, pages, or projects), other workers might have to deal with more collaboration and face-to-face meetings. For them, working at home can be challenging. It requires accountability, better work habits, and a general ability to get things done when there are roaring distractions all around.

Since working at home requires a discipline muscle that many of us need to strengthen, it’s easy to let our first days or weeks at home be structured by meetings and not our mission. That is, we might view the phone or web meetings on our calendar as the “Big rocks” of our day instead of seeing our biggest projects as our biggest rocks. After you conduct a weekly review of the projects that are most pressing, these suggestions might help.

  • Identify the three biggest project tasks you need to complete each day (not including meetings).
  • Make a promise to complete these tasks and deliver results to another person (boss or coworker).
  • Check in for a follow-up after making the delivery.

This is the productivity side of working at home. But there’s another side to working at home that has been widely ignored. It’s the human side.

There’s a story of three people who find themselves stranded on an uncharted desert island. Sort of like Gilligan’s Island, but without commercials. After years of learning how to smoothly work together to survive, the trio one day finds a bottle with a genie in it. The genie grants each person a wish. The first wishes to be back home in California, and—poof—she’s gone. The second wishes to be reunited with his family in Texas, and—poof—he’s gone. The third person looks around the empty island and says to the genie, “You know, I miss my two friends. I wish they were back.”

Here’s the rest of the story about the Chinese workers. After nine months of working at home, the study was over. The workers were told they could continue working from home four days a week or they could come back and grind it out in-office for the full five. Slightly more than half of these workers wanted to come back and work in the office. They reported they were too “lonely.”

There’s a human side to working at home. We can use our VitalSmarts tools to strengthen our communication muscle and our productivity muscle, but we might still feel like something is missing.

Leaning in (versus spacing out) during meetings might help and checking in or following up after finishing a project piece might help. But this human solution will need some personal thought and personal tailoring for each of us. If we’re feeling restless after four days at home, the human side is where we might want to look.

And maybe call your brother “just because.”

All the best,
Brian

1Nicholas, Liang, James, Roberts, John, Ying, and Zhichun Jenny. “Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment *.” OUP Academic. Oxford Academic, November 20, 2014. https://academic.oup.com/qje/article-abstract/130/1/165/2337855?redirectedFrom=fulltext.

Headshot

Brian Wansink

Brian received his PhD from Stanford and worked as an MBA professor at Dartmouth, Wharton, University of Illinois, and Cornell. His first books Asking Questions and Consumer Panels uncovered many secrets about habits and human behavior. He used these insights to help people eat healthier by writing the books Slim by Design and Mindless Eating, published in over 20 languages. He now focuses on discovering new ways to help people become more effective, communicative, productive, resilient, responsible, and creative.

6 thoughts on “Working or Shirking from Home?”

  1. What a brilliant piece of writing–fun, helpful, practical. I’m so glad you’ve joined the VS team so we get even more access to your thinking, Dr. Brian!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Darrell. “Social comparison” can be useful because it lets us know what we might be feeling (“I miss my friends”) is normal and not strange or needy in any way. Thanks for your kind comments.

      Best, Brian

  2. Thanks for this piece! I actually feel like I’ve been thriving from working at home. I am more productive (because I am not distracted by the open office space we work in) and put in more hours (because I don’t have to drive to and from work or go through the whole routine of getting ready for my day. I literally roll out of bed, walk to my desk a few feet away, and get started). But as you stated, it’s different for everyone. I’m glad it works for me!

  3. You’ve a part of the lucky minority, Star!

    We just did a study in last week’s newsletter that showed that 38% say they are equally productive, 33% say they are LESS productive, and 29% say they are more productive.

    The big difference: The more productive people report being more organized, focused, and less distracted.

    Sounds like your routine is working well. Congratulations and thanks for your note.

  4. I am definitely more productive working from home (no interruptions from co-workers coming to my desk to chit-chat, noise level is literally gone now, etc.). I have more time to focus on my actual work.

    1. Your comment about being productive partly because of low noise levels is a good one. Some people are like you and others — ones that have kids that are at home also — throw up their hands and say “This is too crazy I can’t get anything done.”

      A person has to be careful to not use this unique COVID experience to generalize to all WFH experiences. Once the kids are back in school, they might be more productive than they think.

      Thanks for your comment.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.