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So I was speaking to one of the folks I work with here a few days ago, and they were complaining that their company no longer allows workers to work remotely at all any more due to the decrease in productivity. As someone that has heard this excuse used for justifying onsite only staffing in my search for remote opportunities, I'm wondering if there's any empirical evidence that confirms this at all or if I and others that I know in the industry are being told a tale.

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closed as not constructive by gnat, Kilian Foth, Glenn Nelson, Walter, MichaelT Feb 13 '13 at 15:12

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It's a good question, but you can find reams about this by searching Google for "Telecommuting Productivity." –  Robert Harvey Mar 13 '12 at 20:18
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I've worked remotely and managed remote workers for most of the past 18 years and I think it's fair to say that the work done remotely differs from the work done in an office. Given how difficult it is to quantify programmer productivity, I would look very critically at any empirical study that aimed to break things down to a single number. I think it's widely held, though, that workers are more satisfied if there is some flexibility about remote work. You want to keep excellent programmers satisfied, so... –  Larry OBrien Mar 13 '12 at 20:24
    
The definition of "productivity" here is very important, both in terms of proving the case, and also in terms of understanding the culture of an [potential] employer. –  todofixthis Mar 15 '12 at 19:39
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5 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

No.

For a very simple reason: you can't test it.

Let's say you can evaluate productivity, and give a number (by the way, how do you do it?). Now how do you create a situation where a developer will be in the exact same circumstances, remotely in a part of the test, on-site in another part?

Even if you succeed in doing such a test, what it will show? How would you ever apply it in practice?

There are too many factors to take in account. For example:

  • Is it stressful to commute? If you have to spend an hour in jams or in a noisy bus/underground, your productivity will decrease.

  • Is it stressful to be among other people? Personally, I find it much more comfortable to be alone, to know that nobody will enter in my room, etc. But it's different for some other developers.

  • Are you distracted a lot if you're alone? I'm not, but there are some people who can't work at home, just because they find themselves watching YouTube for two hours before starting to do what they have to do, and when they will finally start their daily work, they will remember that they must call their dentist to make an appointment, etc.

  • Is 9 AM. - 7 PM. the best shift for you? I know that if I have to do something creative, I have to sleep until evening, and work during the night. For a non-creative, technical work, my best shift is different. If I work at home, I have this flexibility which allows me to increase the overall productivity. On the other hand, some other developers may find this unproductive, because they will, for example, stay for 20 hours, trying to solve a bug in a product, and instead, introducing even more bugs, because they are tired.

  • etc.

Here are two examples from daily life. The first one is mine, the second one comes from my colleague.

Example 1:

I live alone, and I don't have pets at home. There is no noise around me (the street is too small so there are just neighbor cars). I have a fast computer with an SSD, two large screens, the newest software, a keyboard I love, etc. I don't answer my phone, so customers learnt that it's not a good idea to call me when they need something.

Recently, I was asked to work for a customer in his own company. It was a noisy, crowded place. I was in an open-space, with phones ringing around. I had an old laptop with a small screen, which I used to connect through Remote Desktop to another computer, from which I connected through another Remote Desktop into a third computer. The software was old. The internet connection was slow.

Guess in which case I was more productive.

Example 2:

My colleague has a family and a small child. He has a separate room where he can work, but often he must take care of a child, or answer a call of a customer, etc. His house has some noisy neighbors (with a dog barking all the time) and a large road nearby. He works on a new computer with pretty decent software, but cannot afford an SSD or a license of Visual Studio Ultimate. He has a very slow internet connection (and cannot have a faster one in his area).

Recently, he was asked to work on-site for a customer who has 10/12 on Joel Test. He had a separate room, very quiet. No distractions. Fast computer. Fiber optic internet.

Guess in which case he was more productive.

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Do you think during a drug testing trial the test group and placebo group are identical and engage in the same activities in the same settings? This is why we have statistics. Easy test, whichever environment a given employee is more productive, that's where you let her work. –  JeffO Mar 13 '12 at 20:52
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Couldn't you heavily minimize the impact of all these external variables with a large enough sample size? –  Tikhon Jelvis Mar 13 '12 at 20:58
    
@Jeff O: I see your point. But I believe statistics are meaningless here, since the result would radically change from person to person. The case is very different for example for Joel Test. If you measure the happiness and the productivity of your developers before and after installing a version control system in your company, you will obtain clear, ubiquitous results. –  MainMa Mar 13 '12 at 21:01
    
@MainMa - Isn't the point to see if those who want to work remotely can maintain or improve their productivity instead of seeing if there are negative consequences forcing those who don't for whatever reason? –  JeffO Mar 14 '12 at 0:43
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Unless someone can identify what you need to get done and when, where you do it and at what time, won't matter.

If there is evidence to support it, that can be a start, but it doesn't really matter. First there has to be a way to measure productivity; that's not easy and is a major topic of debate. A given worker can test both environments. Obviously if you know you're being tested, you may work harder in the desired situation.

I've usually started working in the office, and then was allowed some flexibility after proving myself (And moving away from the city but keeping my job.). I think I end up working more at home because I cut nearly 2 hours out of my commute.

Call in sick (stomach flu - need to stay close to toilet), but work from home and get a lot done. That's one way to make your arguement. Make sure your supervisor is enlightened about your increased productivity.

I have to go now, my dog needs to go out ;)

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It is harder to tell if an employee is being productive while working remotely and some employees will take advantage of that to be less productive. Others may prefer to code in their underwear and be even more productive. There are so many different factors and so many different personal motivations that coming up with any universal truth in this matter is impossible since there is no commonality between most cases.

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best way to measure productivity: do that employee's tasks get done correctly and on time? this is just as easy to measure if you are remote as if you are in office. –  Jim Ford Mar 13 '12 at 21:33
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What those companies are really saying is that they don't trust developers to work at home. Or that if they allow one to work from home they have to allow everybody and they don't trust everybody.

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Theory X & Theory Y is a good formalisation of this (in this case, it's Theory X) –  CraigTP Mar 14 '12 at 9:36
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All it takes is one person who goofs off when working remotely to kill it for everyone in many companies. Are there people who are more efficient working remotely, yes.

Are there people who get less done and perpetually miss deadlines that people in the office are easily able to meet, yes. There are people who are never on IM and don't respond to emails in a timely manner and don't answer their phone (OK is the boss going to think you are working when he can't get in contact with you for hours? No.) and who never commit anything after about noon. And who miss every deadline with some excuse but never tell you in advance that things are not progressing as they should be. And who take 4 weeks to deliver the same type of product that in house developers (and sometimes ones of a lower skill level) can deliver in a week or that they themselves delived in that time frame before starting to work from home. Indeed I have worked with these people and they are now no longer allowed to work remotely. Luckily for several other people (who live out of town) management didn't decide to punish everyone becasue a few abused it.

Remote workers are not visible to management, they have to be more aware of keeping management appraised of what they are doing and what issues they have than they have to be in the office. When they don't and simultaneously fail to deliver a quality product, then remote working gets a bad name. Managers don't often see the 20 people doing it right when they are trying to fix the one going bad. And it is often perceived as less risky for them to remove a benefit from everyone than only the ones abusing it.

What I am saying is they don't care if there is empirical evidence, if they have perceived a local situation where it wasn't working.

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+1 on the first sentance. And unfortunately, the few who deserve to work remotely don't get to because the others will complain about favoritism. –  JeffO Mar 14 '12 at 0:45
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