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Is there any hard data (studies, comparisons, not-just-gut-feel analysis) on the advantages and disadvantages of working from home?

My devs asked about e.g. working from home one day per week, the boss doesn't like it for various reasons, some of which I agree with but I think they don't necessarily apply in this case.

We have real offices (2..3 people each), distractions are still common. IMO it would be beneficial for focus, and with 1 day / week, there wouldn't be much loss at interaction and communication. In addition it would be a great perk, and saving the commute.


Related: Pros and Cons of working Remotely/from Home (interesting points, but no hard facts)


To clarify: it's not my decision to make, I agree that there are pro's and con's depending on circumstances, and we are pushing for "just try it". I've asked this specific question because (a) facts are a good addition to thoughts in arguing with an engineer boss, and (b) we, as developers, should build upon facts like every respectable trade.

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I don't want to answer because this is "from-the-gut" -- if you're struggling to get your boss to give you WFH privileges I would hasten you to not call it "WFH" but telecommuting. In my opinion WFH is too comfy of a word -- it sounds more like you're asking to watch the Price Is Right while you do your job rather than trying to isolate yourself from workplace distractions so you can be more efficient. –  Watson Dec 13 '10 at 13:17
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The only disadvantage I see is it can become very depressing working alone all day. Even if you are linked to your colleague by chat, emails, etc, you still can't see their smile, the tone of their voice, etc. Instead I would work on improving your current work place. –  user2567 Dec 13 '10 at 13:21
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You can look at a climate graph or visit the north pole. Both are hard facts.. why discount experience? –  Tim Post Dec 13 '10 at 13:21
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@Tim Post: A "climate chart" would be hard data, "it was fracking cold" is not. There's already enough "how it was for me" blogs on the web, as well as "I think it's better because it's the future". I am specifically looking for hard data, because that is harder to find. –  peterchen Dec 13 '10 at 13:31
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Risk prevention: not commuting one day each week reduces by 20% the risk of a car crash while going to work. –  mouviciel May 30 '13 at 7:52
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10 Answers

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Research Material

There are a few but not all are current or applying exclusively to our field:

NOTE: Some of the articles appeared in journals and aren't free.

Update - Personal Experience

I've now been doing this for about 4 months at the time of this update (2012-02-146), and here's a simple pro-con list:

Pros

  • time-table flexibility
    • to pick the kids up from school
    • to take care of family emergencies
    • to walk to the kitchen to grab coffee
  • productivity can sometimes be increased
    • less disruption from co-workers or open-space annoyances
    • own set of software and tools, workstation tweaking (as long as you don't indulge too much into it)
  • savings on travel
    • though we careful that if you still need to occasionally travel, you factor that in and don't end up paying more expensives travel cards in your area for one-off journeys or other similar issues
  • healthier eating (depends on the workplace and your cooking skills...)
  • if your IT requirements permit, you can check-in on work anytime you want, as you're always at your office

Cons

  • managing the time table is tricky
    • keeping relatives away is harder,they don't (and may take a very long time to, by the look of it) understand that boundaries are needed and need to be respected
    • whether it's your children and partner barging in to ask for help with something or discuss something important happening in their lives, which you could ignore at the office if you're in a meeting. Here, they barge into the meeting...
    • or your mother calling in the middle of the day "since you're working from home"
    • or the unexpected (like paramedics calling me on day to check on an old lady in my building, which I had just moved into, because they didn't get her phone number right and where trying to reach someone in the building by using the white pages: you just can't make that up)
  • productivity can also take a hit under some cirumstances
    • connectivity drops are a PITA
    • if you IT department is a bit "annoying", you may end up with no local software kit, no decent hardware, and not even a VPN access but just an RDP gateway to your old workstation back at the office (this purely sucks, be warned)
  • communication is more difficult, though possible:
    • face time is harder to arrange
    • your colleagues skype- or phone-screen you on occasions, and so do you the other way around
    • the coolest and most modern gadgets and virtual office tools won't match that the good ol' back and forth during a brainstorming session with a whiteboard, colored markers and a hand-full of sticky notes
  • crappier eating
    • you can tend to fall into a cycle of eating snacks and things you have readily available in your kitchen (and then end up spending more than you would at an office, where you might focus more)
  • you develop a tendency to check in out of office hours, which may not always be healthy (for your work habits, and for your family time)

A lot of these are obviously linked: if you get into a non-productive cycle and take some time to snap out of it, you might be tempted to eat junk snacks and all that.

There are also so variables that are neither pros nor cons, but will affect the experience:

  • is your boss the more "give-you-some-leash" type or the "whatchya-been-doing-these-past-5-minutes"?
    • it's understandable as you might (and I would assume you would) occasionally slack off, and might actually keep you on your toes
    • it gets you down, disrupts your concentration, and eats time for nothing if you were actually working
  • is your home more likely than your office to have environmental annoyances (for instance, I had roadworks for 2 weeks outside my window at home... but I had a pre-school under my window at the office)

Overall I am happy with the experience and have been trying to refine my process to work at home to the fullest extent of my produtivity, but it takes some discipline at first and then whenever life gets you a bit down (I find that it's harder to shake than in an office).

If I had the choice though, I'd much prefer to still work at the office with colleagues, but from the experience I'd say I wouldn't mind having subordinates requesting to telecommute (at least for a try-out).

I could go on longer, but this isn't hard-data, just personal feedback as originally promised.

Update 2 - More Personal (Bad) Experience

It's been longer now, and I have to say I've lost momentum on a few things and let myself get overworked at a given period and... it took me nearly 2 months to snap out of a near-depressive and vegetative state.

Which, granted, is what I expected to happen eventually and why I didn't really want to work from home in the first place, as the environment is more prone to this type of thing and makes it harder to kick the burn-out feeling than if you're at the office with your peers. It's also very frustrating when you know exactly how to snap out of it (it's all detailed up there: follow the dots and things will be fine, but actually doing it takes some will power, sometimes...) but just can't get yourself to actually do it.

If it does happen to you, grab a friend or co-worker and have them look over your shoulder every once in a while and get people to request more frequent status updates from you (not too many). Grab people that you know won't be (too) judgmental and won't make it a hassle for you, so that you have a motivator and a need to keep things going. Do force yourself to plan and time box your daily duties as much as possible.

It really got pretty bad for me at some point, as I had a lengthy period of professional overwork and a crazy load of these fun things life can throw at you.

Still not saying working from home is necessarily bad, but it does have its cons, and getting into this state is already bad enough, so you better have an environment that helps you shake it.

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Studies and surveys on subjects such as the advantages of working from home can often end up being biased.

Here's a recent BBC article on the subject. There's a mention of viewership of a certain show rising during snow, but that does not necessarily mean people working from home were distracted by the TV schedule.

I think the bottom line is building up trust with the people you interact with, whether co-workers, bosses or clients.

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+1 for building trust -- that's what its all about –  Watson Dec 13 '10 at 13:58
    
Studies and surveys on any subject can often be biased. It's actually pretty hard to even honestly try to do a study that's context-free and does show a bias. Still, that's what we have. Trust is indeed important though. –  haylem Dec 13 '10 at 14:32
    
@haylem: You're right, studies on any subject can be divorced from reality. The only reliable study for you is perhaps the one you carry out yourself, being fully aware of the parameters and the context. –  Programming Enthusiast Dec 13 '10 at 15:24
    
even like that, it's often hard not to put yourself in a situation to be biased :) –  haylem Dec 13 '10 at 15:28
    
@haylem: I feel the word 'study' should have a different definition here. As Watson has explained, there's no slamming down fact sheets here. A study should mean frank observations that can be discussed, to show why WFH is the right way to go. –  Programming Enthusiast Dec 13 '10 at 15:38
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I think you might be approaching this the wrong way - walking into your bosses office and slamming down fact sheets on why it's important that you be allowed to work in your boxers is probably not going to impress anyone.

As Jon stated, this is a trust issue, but it's also a negotiation. You need to spend some time with your boss to understand their vantage point in this argument. It's possible he/she's had a very negative experience previously, or heard about a negative result of this policy from their colleagues. You need to attack first, and remember that it's all about what you can offer your boss. Perhaps he/she is worried that you won't get your tasks done -- maybe work in a mandatory stand-up session at the beginning of the day, or convince your fellows to provide specific updates at the end of the day to show what work was completed. Offer a one-month trial and shave a little more time off of the last estimate you gave -- you'll have to work a little harder but you "should" have extra time now. If you still cannot get them to agree -- look at allowing at least one or two days a month for "emergency" telecommuting (snow-days, sickness, Godzilla, etc).

Also (as stated previously) don't call it WFH (bad/soft connotation) -- it's telecommuting.

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Sorry no hard facts (so I risk down-vote) -- but this isn't a "from the gut analysis" it's a strategic plan/analysis of your position. In business all 'facts' are negotiable anyway :) –  Watson Dec 13 '10 at 14:12
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There may be some scientific studies...and there may not. They may or may not be indicative of your results. Some people are more efficient when they telecommute, some are not.

The only way to know is to try it, for a month, and see if stuff still gets done. See how the people like it. Start with one day a week. If that's good, go to two days a week. And so on. Find ways to avoid in-person meetings unless absolutely necessary. Eventually, if all goes well, you'll get to telecommuting five days a week, and you can get rid of the office expense.

Anecdote: when the price of gas shot through the roof after Hurricane Katrina, many firms in California instituted telecommuting as a 'temporary' measure - and found that productivity increased, moral increased, etc. (how could you not be happier and more productive if you no longer had a two-hour California commute?) so they kept doing it after gas prices went back to normal.

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I agree with this. Some people are just not suited to working at home and some will be able to get much more done at home. –  Matt McCormick Dec 13 '10 at 18:24
    
I'm in favour of it, but it's not my decision. –  peterchen Dec 14 '10 at 6:56
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I used to run an IT department for a small business in Florida, where hurricane strikes were a very real threat. After our first very-near miss, we started getting a lot of inquires from our customers about our disaster preparedness plans. So, we started looking at telecommuting as an integral part of our company's disaster preparedness. In the event of a looming hurricane, we figured that employees would start leaving town one to three days before a hurricane, and would stay out of town, or at least stay away from the office for perhaps weeks afterwards. If we could largely run the business via telecommuting employees, then the company would survive as long as people could find internet access, which could be at a hotel, a relative's house, wireless air cards, etc., This tipped the business case from just "provides-focus" and "good for moral", to "essential to keeping customers" and "will keep the company in business."

The business continuity focus of telecommuting made it inherently easier to justify telecommuting related funds, too. This focus also helped shift the culture of the company since upper management took a real interest the ability of the company to run in a distributed fashion. It also removed a fundamental stress in the daily reality faced by many businesses, which is whether the business can survive a disaster. Well, for us, a real hurricane strike would not of been pretty, or easy, but it would been survivable.

This line of reasoning doesn't apply to every company, of course.

BTW - Our shift in having a good telecommuting system also became an important employee recruiting and retention tool. It also eased the management's conscience since we could not encourage employees to leave town, if needed, without having a choice between safety and business operations.

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Excellent Real World example. –  Wonko the Sane Dec 13 '10 at 15:15
    
Thanks - I started working there the year the gulf coast was just getting pommeled. It was like freak-out mode for about 2 years until the weather seemed to ease-up a bit. –  JJ Rohrer Dec 13 '10 at 17:59
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It's indeed a nice real world example, but it hardly qualifies as "hard data" as requested by the OP. –  haylem Aug 20 '11 at 13:22
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Here is a link to an article that mentions a study commissioned by Citrix (The company that would love it if everyone worked from home.) http://www.workshifting.com/2010/12/making-collaboration-work-for-the-21st-centurys-distributed-workforce-study.html

I'm still looking for the study results.

Regardless of what you think of the book "The 4-Hour Workweek" by Timothy Ferriss (most people think the notion is preposterous), there is a chapter on strategies to get your company to let you work from home.

  • suggest a trial period.
  • Ask for a little more time than you want so you have room to negotiate.
  • And emphasize that this is not engraved in stone and if the productivity isn't there, it can be cancelled at the boss's discretion.
  • Get stuff done.

Make sure you are not confusing working from home with flex-time. Your boss may expect the same hours of availability. Failing to answer the home phone during 9-5, could ruin the whole thing. If you want flex-time, everyone is going to have adopt a project oriented way of tracking work and not the amount of hours.

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Just make a google search about the rates of depression among people who spend a lot of time home.

There have been studies about the different distractions available at home (like the internet, or even sleeping) that show a direct correlation between the onset of depression, and the reduction of outside contact. Without mentioning the studies about how the loss of sunshine affects the brain and eases the mind into a state where it can easily get depressed.

There are studies out there. Problem is most people do not pay attention to them, and they later find themselves visiting psychiatrists for no other reason than to get a fix for a problem they did not need to have in the first place.

I'm not saying you will experience such symptoms. I assume that you are a normal, and well adjusted individual with a strong moral and principles base. So, I'm just warning you against of what possibilities may lay ahead.

Also, how would you escape from work?

if home = work
then what?

Where would you go to escape from work?

The toilet?

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It's not about me (atm I'm involved in to many projects and decisions) but one of my devs, and I would object to working from home all the time for the exact reason you mention. Myself, I found the separation of work and spare time one great advantage of a job compared to university. –  peterchen Dec 14 '10 at 7:04
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We successfully use telecommuting in our team. People are allowed to work from home a couple of days a month in average (with max of 5 in a month). The catch is that these permissions are not automatic, we expect people who work from home to have more productivity than at office (having less distractions), and this is usually the case.

Having grants for working from home is also a sign of trust, so we don't easily give it to new people in the team.

All considered it worked very well. At least one programmer declined another job offer better paid because of this "perk".

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Interesting - how do you show you are more productive? –  peterchen Jan 26 '11 at 14:56
    
no specific metric but at the following day standup it's evident the productivity. Also working from home they need to keep skype open all the time and they have quite a definite task to accomplish while at home. –  Uberto Jan 26 '11 at 15:10
    
how does this answer the question asked? –  gnat May 29 '13 at 18:02
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I've been working from home for the past 9 months or so. Actually it's more like long-distance telecommuting (very long distance in fact - my "primary" office is in Boston and I'm in Seattle). I worked for the company for 3 years locally in Boston, but after my wife became pregnant with our third child we decided it was best to move back and be closer to family in Seattle. There was a business case to go along and justify my move however; we have clients here on the west coast that I deal with where being more local would help. Even though the company I work for has an office in Seattle, I'm not really connected with anyone in the office and given that it would be at least an hour commute each way, I haven't been there in months (really hard on most days to justify spending a couple hours a day on a bus when it takes 10 seconds to walk down the hall).

So, on most days I work at home. It was not an arrangement that I would have picked when in Boston, even though we did have some people doing it. I had a small two bedroom apartment in Boston, and now in Seattle we have a house four times the size (and paying less in rent!) A separate room/home office is key, and if you are going to have a land-line, it's best that the only connection to that line be in the office, lest you have any little ones pick up the phone when you're on an important call. My company pays for internet/phone when you have a work from home arrangement, so that works out nicely. I would imagine however for a part-time arrangement that the company would not pay for it (they don't at mine if you're only doing a couple days a week).

I am in constant contact with my teams in Boston and New York via email/pm/phone and I travel back every three months. The arrangement works out pretty well, although there are times I miss face to face interaction. However there are other times, like when I go back east, where I'm reminded how much time idle chit chat can suck out of the day or how often people hit you up with questions. The one thing that's different is that I feel the need to constantly be working when I'm at home during work hours, whereas if I was not doing anything productive at the office (like talking with a co-worker about non-work related matters) I wouldn't think anything of it. So my 8 hour day is usually 8 hours of actual work, whereas at the office it's quite a bit less. At home if I get side-tracked with something not work related I'll tend to make up that extra time.

My family is pretty good about keeping boundaries, although one thing that can cripple a good working arrangement is being too flexible. You really should structure any chores or errands into one solid block (which I find is best towards the end of the day when my productivity is about drained). Chopping up the day just is not a good way to go about your work.

In summary, if you're going to pursue telecommuting make sure you:
1) Have a separate office
2) Have a dedicated land line if you're not going to be relying on a cell phone for all calls (and after awhile you'll appreciate being able to have a land-line and put your phone on speaker to avoid holding the phone while you're typing all the time)
3) Make sure family knows that when you're working, you're off-limits unless it's an emergency (my kids are pretty good about saying "daddy working" when they pass by my office or if I go upstairs)
4) Find out if your company reimburses for any expenses or if you're on your own

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how does this answer the question asked? –  gnat May 29 '13 at 19:38
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Since moving to a new role that allows working from home nearly 100% of the time (still have a dedicated office space if I need it), I honestly feel there is no downside other than having to not appear to be gloating or flaunting the fact that I can work from home when talking to others who cannot. Also - others, particularly my family seems to think that because I am at home - that it is not really working (but will generally leave me alone when I am working).

Sure the cats want attention every once and a while, but it wastes less time than the obligatory small talk about family, kids, sports, etc. with co-workers. Office Communicator saves all my "chat" conversations with my team - better than the notes I would take myself.

We use Citrix to connect, MS Outlook for email and meeting scheduling, Office Communicator as a primary means of communication between the team, SharePoint for a common document workspace, Live Meeting or OC for sharing desktops, and of course a conference call bridge for meetings. People working in the office use all of those things too - even when they are sitting next to each other.

I work for a large company that increasingly allows working from home as an option for several thousand workers. It is cheaper for the company, the employee, better for the environment, and the experience at least with my company is that there is no difference in productivity.

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how does this answer the question asked? –  gnat May 29 '13 at 18:01
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