What researchers say about the benefits of remote work

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Remote working isn’t new, but technology has both expanded and accelerated it.

Research shows the benefits extend to both the company and workers: a business spends less on office space and worker retention, and can hire wider, while harnessing the output of a team that is happier and more productive. Workers spend less time stuck in traffic, meetings and being interrupted, and more with their loved ones whilst pursuing their interests. Society as a whole can gain from remote work which reduces traffic and the environmental impact of offices.

Remote working has been the subject of numerous experiments, both natural and scientific. The tech company Basecamp is an especially noteable example, employing more than 50 people spread across 32 cities. Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier even wrote a book called Remote, which looks at how you can do remote work well.

“Forcing everyone into the office every day is an organisational [single point of failure]” write Fried and Heinemeier.

“Say you spend 30 minutes driving in rush hour every morning and another 15 getting to your car and into the office. That’s 1.5 hours a day, 7.5 hours per week, or somewhere between 300 and 400 hours per year, give or take holidays and vacation. Four hundred hours is exactly the amount of programmer time we spent building Basecamp, our most popular product. Imagine what you could do with 400 extra hours a year.”

Throughout the book Fried and Heinemier claim that remote workers have the potential to be happier, healthier and more productive. Obesity, stress, pain and depression are just some of the negatives that they attribute to long commutes. Basecamp also enjoys the ability to hire the best people regardless of where they are — the potential talent pool is not limited to the people who can commute to the office. And the people they hire are not burdened by endless interruptions — something they ascribe to offices.

“Meaningful work, creative work, thoughtful work, important work—this type of effort takes stretches of uninterrupted time to get into the zone. But in the modern office such long stretches just can’t be found. Instead, it’s just one interruption after another,” the pair write in Remote.

An experiment by Stanford Profesor Nicholas Bloom and grad student James Liang seems to back up many of these claims. The two studied the call center of Chinese travel website Ctrip over nine months.

Not only did Ctrip save $US1,900 per employee in costs on furniture and office, the workers allowed to work from home were happier, less likely to quit and more productive than the control group – those that had to work in the office. Those that worked from home answered 13.5% more calls than those in the office.

Bloom and Liang attribute this huge productivity increase — amounting to almost an extra workday a week — to a couple of factors. A quieter and less distracting work environment was one. But the big change was that those at home worked more.

“They started earlier, took shorter breaks, and worked until the end of the day. They had no commute. They didn’t run errands at lunch. Sick days for employees working from home plummeted,” writes Bloom.

Meanwhile, a study by the Carbon Trust estimates that an average employee working from home for just two days a week could save 390kg of carbon from being emitted every year. This takes into account both the reduction in emissions from the commute, as well as the rationalisation of office space and heating.

But some workers have the opportunity to save a lot more than 390kg of CO2 emissions, depending on factors like distance from work and office requirements.

The Carbon Trust study cites British Telecom, whose trial with remote working saw 30 staff save 1.4 tonnes of CO2 each over year. A subsequent full scale-rollout of remote work saw BT save 14,000 tonnes of CO2 over the course of a year company-wide.

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