Are Americans more productive working from home?

Americans might be working more at home because they don’t have to commute, said a recent study published by the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago.

The institute’s report — based on surveys and other data — said extra time not driving was mainly given to extra work. It said even if people are working less at home, they are more productive not spending time in their cars.

Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University who worked on the study, said his conclusion was Americans were too hard on themselves with their work-from-home productivity.

Still, many experts have questioned the benefits of working from home because of a lack of collaboration and motivation issues. I put the question to San Diego-area business leaders and scholars.

Q: Are Americans actually more productive working from home?

Lynn Reaser, Point Loma Nazarene University:

YES: Avoiding the stress caused by commuting is probably boosting the productivity of most employees now working from home. Beyond that, productivity depends on the new working environment, job role and personalities. People who have a private and quiet home environment are more productive than those dealing with constant interruptions. Those tasked with their own projects can perform better than those with assignments requiring close collaboration. Introverts also thrive in the more isolated environment versus extroverts.

Kelly Cunningham, San Diego Institute for Economic Research:

YES: Depending upon experience level, working at home tends to be more productive. A recent Harvard Business Review study found working at home helped office workers “focus on the work that really matters.” Workers took on more responsibility for their own schedules, viewing actual work completed as more worthwhile to their employer as well as to themselves. They spent 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners.

Gary London, London Moeder Advisors:

YES: One measure of productivity is time invested. Working at home expands the amount of time a person can work, rather than commute. Online working can mostly be accomplished at all hours, and many invest extra hours in their work (maybe that’s bad). We can achieve a better balance of work, family, fitness and fun. However, the productivity unknown includes the benefits of being around your co-workers, formally and informally. Probably Zoom cannot replace that.

Alan Gin, University of San Diego:

YES: At least for those who can work from home. The ability to forgo commuting frees up a lot of time, particularly in areas where the commute is long and by car. Research shows that people are using that extra time to work more. There are some negative impacts in terms of lack of interaction with co-workers and with morale. It is probably too early to tell how big those problems are compared to the benefits of more time.

Bob Rauch, R.A. Rauch & Associates:

YES: While the jury is still out on the longer-term analysis, now, they are more productive. Assuming the average physical commute and preparation for leaving (grooming) saved each way is 45 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes (no grooming needed) going home, even if two-thirds of the time saved is for non-work activities, 25 minutes have been saved net for work. Fewer cars on the road for those who still commute has additional benefits.

Austin Neudecker, Weave Growth:

YES: I’ve worked with teams remotely (home and shared offices) for years and seen a range of results. If employees are able to effectively create and control their environments to minimize interruptions, home offices can be a productive alternative to a daily office attendance. Yet, there are clear trade-offs and exceptions where the type of work, team rapport, certain personalities, etc. don’t work. I like to take my teams on workcations twice a year to set goals, brainstorm and have fun together.

James Hamilton, UC San Diego:

YES: Commuting was burning up a huge number of hours (not to mention gallons of gasoline) for many people. Whether the hours saved can translate into more productivity depends on the person and the job. It’s hard to work effectively at home when there are children and other distractions, and fumbling with the new technology can become its own time sink. Faculty meetings seem to me to take longer when they’re held using Zoom.

Chris Van Gorder, Scripps Health:

YES: Before COVID I was skeptical, at best. But we now have 2,700 back-office, administrative and support staff working from home and from all indications, they have been very productive. They take pride in their work and their contributions to the success of the organization, and will continue to be productive while working remotely. But I worry that our close organizational culture could be impacted if this was a long-term or permanent situation. Nevertheless, I’m a believer now.

Norm Miller, University of San Diego:

N/A: Yes and no. For some of us that need focus time and work mostly solo, the time saved from commuting and social distractions can enhance productivity. For those that need mentoring and collaboration with team members, or face distractions at home from kids, pets, spouses, working outside the home will be better. For most of us, a combination of the two will prove to be optimal, and management must learn how to combine isolation with collaborations and mentoring in the right proportions.

Jamie Moraga, IntelliSolutions:

YES: It depends on the job. Some positions require workers to be onsite so they can’t work from home. But for those who can, studies are showing that productivity can be increased. This can be due to the elimination of commute times and “watercooler talk,” effective time management, new applications and technologies to increase productivity and work-hour flexibility. However, it remains to be seen if this increased productivity is sustainable. Over time, some employees may find that reduced social interaction can inhibit work productivity.

David Ely, San Diego State University:

YES: Employees who were commuting to a workplace prior to the pandemic were spending a significant amount of their workweek in an unproductive activity. Reclaiming that time allows these individuals to potentially complete more work-related and personal activities each day. Many are more productive in the sense that they are accomplishing more. Along with completing work-related tasks from home, many are producing additional valuable services, including childcare and helping children with distance learning.

Ray Major, SANDAG:

YES: People working from home are working longer hours and spending more time in virtual meetings. Productivity is a measure of efficiency, and although working from home may not make people more productive during their usual business hours, they are getting more done. Studies show that workers have worked over 3 billion extra hours since the statewide stay home order began. The ability to meet with anyone, anywhere (globally), anytime has worked surprisingly well during the past nine months.

Reginald Jones, Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation:

YES: Most data shows productivity is not deterred by remote work. A recent survey by Mercer, a human resources and workplace benefits firm, showed 94% of 800 employers indicated productivity was the same or higher with their employees working remotely. Employees report getting more work done. Productivity will even increase as employers better equip employees to work remotely. The future of work will no longer be the place you go, but something you do productively — wherever.