Working from home or Back to the Office? : The academic research

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

If you work in Government you may have observed Jacob Rees-Mogg, Minister for Government Efficiency, touring offices to count the number of civil servants at their desks.

More is better, he argues.

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

The simple answer is, 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. The fact 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 Milic and Rosa Sapic’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, this report from these 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 are some clear benefits associated with working from home these 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 working. 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 public sector is

Back in January, I asked a question about where communications people were with the process of the return to the office. Of almost 300 public sector communications 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 had never left the office and just one per cent had moved back to the office.

It’ll be interesting to see how things change.

Image by Adam Webb on iStock

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