Coming in from the cold

Don DimanligWhen the wintry outdoors cause one’s face to sting there is no better joy than staying indoors, free from the city’s bone-chilling winds and icy roads. But this isn’t the way of the world, for most people have to slog through snowstorms and freezing temperatures nearly every morning to get to offices where their colleagues can hack and sneeze on them every flu season. 

So why can’t most people skip that part and work from home?

The savings to the employer, after all, are real enough. Not only would companies save money on office space, but also their employees would take fewer sick days.

According to a 2011 survey of more than 2,000 employees by Danish researchers, the number of sick days employees took rose when more of them shared an office. 

The researchers found that open-space offices with six or more people increased the number of sick days the employees took by 62 per cent. Though managers know that sick employees are lost money, many still aren’t ready to get people working from home. 

According to a BMO Bank of Montreal poll of Canadian business owners in 2013, nearly half of Canadian businesses are hesitant to offer the option of working from home to their employees.

That’s partly because supervisors “are on the hook for the performance of their teams,” says Tom O’Neill, assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Calgary. This makes supervisors averse to so drastic a change, which would require that they go from doing what they’ve always done – decades upon decades of face-to-face management – to something relatively new – trusting that their employees will productively do unsupervised, remote work. O’Neill says it’s natural for them to resist such change because change is stressful and difficult for people in general.

Still, in light of research published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2014, supervisors shouldn’t be afraid to change their ways. 

Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom, along with his co-authors, worked with a 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency called Ctrip to conduct a nine-month experiment. 

The company wanted to cut its costs by getting its call centre employees to work from home yet was unsure whether the move would adversely affect its productivity and so it called in the economists. 

The result was what Bloom and his co-authors believe is the first experiment of its kind: a scientifically sophisticated look at a large firm’s experience with home-based employees. And their findings may surprise anyone who doubts that workers can be home-based and productive.

Compared to their office-based colleagues, those who worked from home were significantly more productive and far happier with their jobs. They took nine per cent less time off work and worked four per cent harder by making more calls when on duty without sacrificing the quality of their calls. 

Home-based workers were also 50 per cent less likely to quit. Saving about $2,000 annually per employee, Ctrip decided to give everyone in its airfare and hotel departments the option to work from home.

Not everyone wanted to do that, however, and a handful of those who had been working from home wanted to get back into the office. They complained of the isolation and loneliness, which eventually took a toll on their happiness and productivity.

Nonetheless, most people can do well at home if they’re aware of their needs and adapt accordingly, says O’Neill, who also serves as director of research to a virtual-work consulting firm called Work EvOHlution. It’s also possible to dodge the loneliness by striking a balance between working from home and working from the office.

One person who finds such balance is Ottawa resident Janet Neilson, a 30-year-old who has been working from home since the beginning of 2013. 

She does about 20 to 50 per cent of her weekly work from home as a research and project manager for Dawson Strategic and as an educational program developer for the Institute for Liberal Studies, an educational charity. 

“Dawson Strategic gives me workspace in an office if I choose to use it,” she wrote in an email. “I like to have the option to change my settings during the week so that I don’t end up feeling like a shut-in when things get busy.”

This flexibility works wonders for people’s moods if they don’t always prefer the solitude of home-based work, but it also works wonders for their work-life balances. 

“The flexibility of virtual work is a big plus – working remotely also allows me to keep my meetings from the road when there’s bad weather,” Neilson wrote from her home, free from Ottawa’s frosty clutches. “I have the ability to schedule my work around my life, and not the other way around.”

Neilson’s ability to schedule her work around her life is one that all mangers should afford to their teams whenever it’s feasible. 


It’s not always the case that the interests of employees and employers align without friction. Indeed, if the research paints an accurate picture of reality and can be generalized, employers get more productivity and employees get more peace of mind when people get to choose their working environments. 


Perhaps more important, if supervisors take heed and become less hesitant to explore working-from-home arrangements, many people will no longer have to lug themselves outdoors to get to their germy offices when it’s -20 C.