Guest blog: A few thoughts on working from home (from a psychologist working from home) - By Dr Thomas L. Webb

Department of Psychology, The University of Sheffield and Chair of The Institute of Inertia

Friday 20th May is National Work from Home Day and many office workers will take the opportunity to avoid the commute in favour of working from home (perhaps in their pajamas[1]) and getting some ‘proper’ work done.

The question is will they be any more productive?

Assuming that the time that would otherwise be spent commuting, attending meetings and chatting with colleagues is spent working, then simple reason dictates that working from home means more time spent working and, thus, greater productivity.

But this simple prediction makes a number of assumptions:

1)      That the nature of the job means that it is possible to work from home as efficiently as from the office (i.e., that the person has access to the resources they need to work, such as high speed broadband)

2)      That people are able to be productive for a longer period of time, without a reduction in performance

3)      And that the home environment does not simply present a set of different, but equally detrimental, distractions to those encountered at work such as children, chores or a beckoning sunny garden

In addition to the logistics, there are also some psychological issues to be addressed.

The Institute of Inertia, a partnership between comparethemarket.com and The University of Sheffield, has been looking further into what is known as ‘the ostrich problem’[2] which suggests that there are times when people bury their heads in the sand and actively avoid keeping track of their progress, especially when they suspect that they may not be making the progress that they want. Acting like the proverbial ‘ostrich’ could lead people to believe that working from home is more productive than it actually is.

For those who are new to home working, there may be an additional obstacle to overcome – namely, that the home is not associated with work; thereby making it difficult to get into the ‘zone’ needed to work effectively. Research shows that over time, people associate situations with particular behaviours (e.g., being quiet in a library, having good table manners when in a posh restaurant, and doing domestic chores when at home) and that people do these things relatively automatically, without having to think about them.[3] These habits, while often helpful, can provide a sense of inertia, which makes it difficult to make changes (e.g., to ignore the TV, if trying to work in bed[4]). It’s the same inertia that led us to set up the Institute of Inertia[5], to look at why consumers do not always act in their best financial interests.

The discussion so far could lead one to think that working from home is not all that it is cracked up to be. However, productivity (at least in the short term) should not be the only outcome of interest. Managers and organisations (and indeed workers themselves) might want to take a broader view that takes into account well-being[6] (a key factor in determining long-term productivity[7]), environmental considerations (less commuters means less cars on the road), and the productivity of the UK as a whole (less commuters means that those who do need to travel can do so more efficiently). Providing workers with the flexibility to work at home may also promote feelings of autonomy and trust, both factors that have been shown to help people to cope with work related stress.[8]

Taken together then, National Working from Home Day is, for many, likely to provide an insight into the challenges and potential benefits of not going into the office.[9] Working from home will not be for everybody, and the outcomes clearly depend on the person’s circumstances, preferences and self-discipline.

However, with the advent of technologies that make working at home easier and more efficient, there seems to be a good case for organisations to provide workers with the flexibility to work at home if they wish; not least because even the knowledge of this flexibility can have positive effects, even if the opportunity is not taken up.

For more information on the Institute of Inertia please visit https://www.comparethemarket.com/inertia/

Footnotes

[1] According to a poll conducted by OnePoll on behalf of ComparetheMarket.com, 18% of office workers in the UK “never get dressed” when working from home.

2 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/spc3.12071/abstract

3 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12518968

4 According to a poll conducted by OnePoll on behalf of ComparetheMarket.com, 9% of women and 5% of men work from their bed when working from home.

5 The Institute of Inertia is a partnership between comparethemarket.com and the University of Sheffield, launched in 2015 to look at the psychology behind financial inertia to help consumers save wasted time and money.

6 According to a poll conducted by OnePoll on behalf of ComparetheMarket.com, 48% of people report that they are happier when working from home.

7 http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9780230249950

8 https://www.jstor.org/stable/2392498?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

9 According to a poll conducted by OnePoll on behalf of ComparetheMarket.com, 48% of people have never worked from home.