Does working from home boost productivity? Sometimes

Bank of England staff reviewed academic research on the issue and shared some surprising findings.

After becoming accustomed to working from home, many workers are hesitant to head back to the office full time, leaving companies to find a balance that retains talent and maintains productivity [File: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg]

Working from home can lift productivity for many workers, so long as they go to the office a few days a week, Bank of England staff said in a blog post that reviewed academic research on the issue.

The findings indicate that isolation from co-workers over longer periods reduces the effectiveness of staff and eats away at relationships forged through face-to-face contact. More complex, less interdependent jobs benefited from the peace of solitary working, they found.

The work feeds into a debate about how much home working companies should allow as governments loosen rules aimed at controlling the coronavirus. For almost half of the U.K. capital’s companies, a shift back to five days a week in the office is already off the table, according to a survey by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“WFH could result in aggregate productivity gains only if workers can be more productive at home rather than in office, or if companies use WFH to cut office space without damaging their own productivity and the ‘freed-up’ space is then used by others for alternative productive purposes,” the BOE researchers wrote.

The BOE researchers said a study they reviewed settled on one to two days a week at home as an ideal. Other studies were less specific, but said that greater duration was negative for productivity.

The review of academic literature on the subject was conducted by Bank of England staff including John Lewis, Andrea Šiško and Misa Tanaka. They found that the impact of working from home on productivity depended largely on the environment at home and the type of task workers were asked to do.

They also found that:

  • Most research focuses on the short-term impacts of working from home, with little analysis on the broader effect on “innovation, employee retention, integration of new colleagues, and team cohesion”
  • Individual company decisions to cut down on office space may not improve productivity across the economy
  • Productivity at home suffered where children were present or where people were living in smaller spaces with more than one adult working in the same place
  • Open-plan offices with background noise hurt productivity
Source: Bloomberg