Whether people working remotely are effective depends less on the job itself and more on their situation at home. This is one of the findings of a broad-based study carried out by economists at TU Darmstadt. The survey takes a look at employee situations as well as the opportunities and risks that come with working from home. Their conclusion: Introducing remote working on a large scale could potentially divide society.
Working from home first became a topic of interest to the general public during the first lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers at the Department of Real Estate and Construction Management at TU Darmstadt in collaboration with the Department of Marketing and Human Resources Management conducted a broad-based study of office workers in Germany immediately after the lockdown began. How and where do people work at home? How do employees feel about working from home? How productive is working from home and what factors determine its success? The research team set out to find answers to these questions. The longitudinal study was carried out in three phases in June, August and October 2020. Up to 952 employees participated in these three phases, with participants effectively representing the range of office employees in Germany.
Study findings paint a varied picture and reveal a wide gap between the reality of working from home and the way it is perceived by society. More people were working from home before the pandemic than previously thought and working from home is far less effective for knowledge-based work than typically assumed. More than one third of participants also said they were less productive when working from home than at the office. This became even more clear as 2020 progressed and participants gained even more experience with remote working.
The study suggests that the most important reason for this drop in productivity is associated with the environment in which people work. “How people live is a strong indication of whether or not they can be effective working from home,” says Professor Andreas Pfnür, Head of the Department of Real Estate and Construction Management. The study found that an employee’s living situation is the most important factor for companies to consider when deciding which of their employees will be able to work from home successfully. “A person’s living situation matters more than what type of job or how many children they have,” Professor Pfnür continues. “This is something we didn’t anticipate.” The more satisfied survey participants were with their living situation, including the location and fit-out of their apartments, the more satisfied and productive they were in terms of working from home.
In addition to having a good living situation, the researchers also identified other factors that are beneficial to remote working. Having complex, varied tasks and greater autonomy were particularly beneficial to being able to effectively work from home. Older, higher-paid and more experienced employees worked more effectively as did full-time workers compared to part-time workers. Singles apparently had a particularly hard time working from home. Feelings of isolation as well as a perceived lack of opportunities for professional development play an important role in this context. “People working from home have fewer opportunities to engage in direct social interaction with colleagues, to learn from older colleagues and to promote their careers,” Professor Pfnür explains. “Young employees tend to identify less with their job as a result, which leaves them feeling less satisfied with their lives.”
Higher chances of success with effective risk management
The study shows that office work cannot be outsourced at will and that traditional offices will continue to exist. However, if used correctly and under the right circumstances, including better infrastructure and voluntary remote working models, working from home can offer numerous opportunities to improve the professional success of employees going foward. Professor Pfnür cautions, however, “Without a targeted change process, the risks associated with remote working as revealed by our empirical data could get out of hand.”
A professional world based on working from home could lead to social upheaval if the public sector and employers do not implement measures to mitigate this risk. “Remote working is the first step towards a two-tier system for office workers,” says Professor Pfnür. On the one hand, some employees would be fine working extensively from their homes where they enjoy a comfortable standard of living or because their jobs are sufficiently attractive. On the other hand, some employees who would be less effective due to poor working conditions at home or would suffer from the additional expenses that working from home may involve. “As a result, remote working could become a status symbol for those who benefit most from new ways of working.”
The findings of the survey have implications for employers, policy makers, the real estate industry and urban planners. The scientists at TU Darmstadt are currently working on putting together recommendations for these groups. They also plan to analyze international data as well.