DATA SEARCH: WFH v Back to the Office: I’ve read the academic research so you don’t have to

‘We’re a data driven organisation,’ many organisations boast before throwing the data out of the window when it comes to ordering staff post-pandemic to return to the office.

If you work in Government you may have observed the sight of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Minister for government efficiency, touring offices to count civil servants at their desk.

More is better, he argues.

So, I thought I’d read through the academic evidence over whether the office or WFH – working from home – is better. 

The simple answer is that it depends.

However, one core thing that runs through all of the research is that one size does not fit all. All WFH or all in the office is not the best outcome.

For those that do work from home, working out where the boundaries lie between work and non-work is the biggest single challenge to keep burn-out at bay. And the danger of burn-out is real. 

It’s better for efficiency

People are more efficient when working from home is one of the findings of Danish researchers Ipsen, van Veldhofen et al in their academic paper Six Key Advantages and Disadvantages of Working from Home in Europe during COVID-19. The other advantages are better work – life balance and greater control over work. 

The downsides, they found, were home office constraints, work uncertainties and inadequate kit. That the survey spanned 13 European countries including the UK strengthens the findings.

Well motivated workers thrive

If you’re self-motivated and are well led you will thrive with WFH, is the finding of Jelena and Rosa’s research. However, those not well motivated won’t adapt well and a purely online approach can lead to burn-out, unhappiness at home and a lack of sleep.

Managing the boundary between work and home is one of the most important challenges to make it work, the report from the Bosnian academics suggests

A lack of contact with colleagues is a problem

During the pandemic many areas of life went online. In this research amongst psychologists, 80 per cent enjoyed working from home but 42 per cent found it difficult at some stage.

Work life balance was again singled out as being the single biggest problem in the research published in the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology

Allowing staff the freedom to decide when to work from home is vital 

In this study of public sector workers fewer interruptions emerged as a key benefit. 

Employees perform better when they are given the choice of when and where to work at home, according to the report from Becker and Thorel in the Journal of Applied Organisational Psychology.

It can penalise women with young children 

While there clear benefits for working from home there are far fewer for women with young children. The burden of looking after them falls proportionately more on them than it does on men.

This Brazilian dissertation from Daniel Arenas also flags up higher burn-out rates amongst mothers with young children.  

One to two days in the office is best

The answer to the organisation-wide problem is hybrid. A bit at home and a bit at work. Harvard University research has looked into the deployment of hybrid working and what model generally looks best.

Two days at home was the conclusion.

So what now?

What’s also interesting is that the drumbeat in Government for a return of staff to sit at desks is not replicated in other parts of the public sector. Naomi Cook, LGA head of workforce,  last summer blogged that hybrid working is here to stay.

Where the sector is

Back in January, I asked the question of where people were with the process of the return to the office. Of almost 300 public sector comms respondents, most – 43 per cent – were working from home and 39 per cent working hybrid. 

Working practices of public sector comms, January 2022

Just over 10 per cent were in limbo waiting for a new process, five per cent never left the office and just one per cent had moved back to the office.

It’ll be interesting to see how things change.

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2 Comments

  1. I learned a long time ago that some working from home makes me more productive, but too much is counterproductive. One or two days seems the best balance. I’m interested to know if the two days should be blocked together or if it is better to work a day at home followed by time in the office and then another day at home? Does the research say anything about this?

  2. I interviewed the First Minister for Wales, Mark Drakeford, during lockdown and he was adamant that the Welsh Government was not going to go back to all staff in the office after the pandemic.
    He felt that the gains to productivity, plus the green dividend of cutting the number of people commuting was a win. He also said that it was an opportunity to cut the size of the government’s office footprint and help improve the work-life balance.
    I suppose that the Jacob Rees-Mogg approach shows the lack of care about the benefits to working people and the wafer-thin commitment tor the green agenda.
    One of the key positives of lockdown was the productivity proof for those managers who previously did not trust their staff to work from home.

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