Should you let your employees work from home?

To WFH or not to WFH: that is the question.

For the uninitiated, WFH, or “Working From Home,” is an acronym that you’ll likely start seeing in more and more work emails, written by coworkers who are likely in their PJs, and probably feeding their dog at the same time.

Some 30 million Americans, or 1 in 5 U.S. workers, work from home at least once a week, research shows, and that number is expected to increase 63% in the next five years.

The WFH trend can be scary for employers: Some believe remote work hinders collaboration by interfering with those flashes of insight and innovation that occur spontaneously in unexpected meetings around the water cooler or in the hallway.

Meanwhile, proponents of telework argue that it decreases real-estate costs, attracts better talent and leads to happier, more productive employees.

But if there’s one thing workplace experts have discovered from the multitude of studies that compare remote workers to in-office workers in attempts to measure which cohort is more productive, it’s that a one-size-fits-all approach to telecommuting is the wrong approach.

“When managers sit down to design a telecommuting policy, they should consider the benefits of telecommuting on a case by case basis,” says Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics, a research firm and consultancy that specializes in innovative workplace practices.

“In each particular case, the benefits of telecommuting depend almost entirely on the kind of work being performed and the culture of the team.”

For instance, an employee’s home may be the best venue for tasks that have well-defined metrics for success and require long stretches of concentration. On the other hand, face-to-face communication in the same physical space tends to be most valuable when tasks are collaborative by nature and require complex information-sharing or exploration, such as when a new project is being launched.

Two seemingly contradictory studies illustrate the idea that different kinds of work call for different levels of workplace flexibility.

One study, conducted by two Stanford graduate students in 2013, tracked employee productivity over a nine month period at a Chinese call center, where half the workers were allowed to telecommute and the rest remained in the office. The study found that the employees working from home completed 13.5% more calls than staff in the office did.

“The more robotic the work, the greater the benefits [of telecommuting],” the study’s authors concluded.

The other study analyzed some 35,000 academic papers, work that is anything but “robotic.” As tellingly, the study found that the best, most widely-cited papers came from coauthors sitting less than 10 meters apart, suggesting that proximity often stimulates innovation.

Lister notes that when determining the efficacy of remote vs. in-office employees the culture of a team is as important as the work itself.

“If a team doesn’t know each other that well, it is far better to work face to face,” she says. In-person interaction “gives people the time to build social connections that make it easier to collaborate remotely and create that level of trust to be effective when they’re not in the same room.”

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