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Home / Industry / Human Resource /  Is a home office actually more productive? Some workers think so

Some Americans have a new outlook on remote working: They prefer it.

In June and July, a group of 1,388 people working from home were asked for their impressions of the experience by workplace consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics and video technology company Owl Labs.

The new arrangement, it turns out, suited many of them.

While roughly 27% said they would have considered such a setup to be ideal before the coronavirus pandemic started, 80% said they would like to continue working remotely for three days of the week or more once the pandemic is over. Many of these people said they would prefer remote work all five days of the workweek.

Another set of 10,000 employees surveyed by the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago say they felt the work-from-home situation was either just as productive or more so than the office. Some told the researchers that home was 30% more productive.

“On average, workers and employers have been pleasantly surprised by productivity when working from home," says Steven Davis, one of the study authors and a University of Chicago business and economics professor. “Reality exceeded expectations."

The end of 9-to-5

The many changes imposed by the pandemic are acting as another challenge to the 9-to-5 workday model, which was already under threat before the pandemic. In 2019, more than 87% of full-time U.S. employees averaged eight-and-a-half hours per workday, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

By last June and July, a group of 2,025 full-time workers who worked remotely and non remotely told Global Workplace Analytics and Owl Labs that they were working more during Covid-19.

How much more? An average of 26 extra hours a month, according to the survey. Another estimate, from New York University Stern School of Business doctoral student Michael Impink, shows average daily work hours increasing 8-15%, depending on the day of the week. He examined data from more than 3.4 million workers, counting the time from their first daily work correspondence to their last.

Not everyone clocked more time at home. More than 40% of employees surveyed by Global Workforce Analytics and Owl Labs said their hours stayed the same while working remotely.

For those who believe a home-office setup is more productive, is it because of a lack of commute or fewer office interruptions?

Mr. Davis’s study declined to offer a single explanation, saying it is “not obvious whether offices or homes have fewer distractions and more quiet time." There are “co-workers and water coolers" in the office, while televisions and “potentially children" serve as home diversions.

The danger is that a workweek expansion could erode work-life boundaries and contribute to employee burnout.

“The traditional 9-5, Monday through Friday, has been fading for years and the pandemic just accelerated that process," says Cali Williams Yost, chief executive and founder at workplace consulting company Flex+Strategy Group. “Individuals and teams now need to be intentional about setting up the guardrails for themselves. What that means for the individual is, we need to be more intentional about planning: what needs to get done and when and where we do it best."

Will remote work stick?

Employers weren’t prepared for the shift to remote work. But some did make things easier by providing employees everything from stipends for home-office equipment to better videoconferencing hookups.

The largest pickup in remote work happened at employers specializing in educational services and finance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly 60% of educational services and 58% of finance companies boosted telework for at least some employees as a result of the pandemic.

Service companies in food, retail and construction were among the lowest adopters, since it is more difficult to do their work remotely. In those cases, fewer than 20% of employers increased telework.

Will remote work last at the companies that embraced it in 2020? Consumer brand companies are betting the work-from-home culture is here to stay by expanding and revamping factories that make everything from coffee to casual clothes.

The key to remote-work longevity, say some observers, is whether companies can formalize guidelines so all employees are treated equally across the organization. If that happens, they say, companies and workers may benefit.

“It’s not going to be a flip of the switch," Ms. Yost says. Instead she expects it to be a “slow recalibration to that next normal."

—Jess Kuronen contributed to this article.

Write to Stephanie Stamm at Stephanie.Stamm@wsj.com

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