We’ve always known this about working from home

This might come as a surprise, but it isn’t late and breaking news that working from home, though teleworking is touted as increasing productivity, can be more stressful and damaging for some – in fact, we’ve known it since 2017.

A report from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions in 2017 indicated that 41 percent of remote employees report higher stress than in-person employees do. The flip side of that coin is that recent studies indicate that working from home increases productivity, and employees find themselves able to get more done.

This comprehensive 80-page report including data from countries around the world describes the work from home experience to its fullest extent – its positives and negatives, its windfalls and pitfalls. Interestingly, however, few of these issues have changed since our society’s migration to remote work during the pandemic.

The good news is that maybe if we look to the past, we won’t be doomed to repeat it.

Why are we more productive working from home?

The question isn’t begged as to whether or not working from home makes employee productivity rise, as unanimously, employers tend to advertise that as fact. Employees are shown to work more hours, accomplish more milestones, and do so with more efficacy. Often, this is due to “a shortening of commuting time, greater working time autonomy,” which ultimately lead to “higher productivity.

This phenomenon is not just American, but international. In France, “84 percent of teleworkers stated that their productivity increased due to telework, and 81 percent said that their work was of higher quality than their office work.” A Brazilian data processing company named SERPO “showed that introducing working-from-home policies resulted in net benefits for the company.” And in Denmark, while working from home fostered similar productivity to that of the office, workers were often more innovative when teleworking.

One of the facets that contribute to a more productive workday is that of work time autonomy. It may be different at every place of employment, as one’s ability to work on their own time “often depends upon an informal understanding between the employee and the manager.” However, if not closely monitored, workers from home “enjoy a significant degree of discretion, at least in relation to the organization of their working time.”

The study reports that from 6 PM to midnight are where “27 percent of teleworkers often carry out their work”, and “43 percent of them sometimes do.” 38 percent of managers tend to work more in the evening, and in Finland, it was found that telework times peaked from 8 PM to 10 PM.

This second point, that of work/life balance improving as a result of teleworking, is more complicated. Some employees claimed their work/life balance was better as a result of teleworking, and others did not.

Ultimately, though the sentiments were mixed, it seems that firm enforcement of those boundaries by companies improved productivity across the board. Employees cited a better balance of work and home life as being due to “more autonomy” and flexibility in their schedules, “greater opportunities for innovative work behavior, lack of interruptions, and/or the possibility of working longer hours.” It appears that without supervision, employees find themselves free to do things their own way.

However, S&P Global reports that companies reporting a “41 percent increase in overall productivity” may be ignoring a key portion of this argument: while productivity is subjective, there is an objective truth that teleworking could be somewhat harmful to employee well-being. But this is no surprise to those studying working from home for years – believe it or not, working from home was stressful before the pandemic.

Why are we more stressed?

Though working from home may be good for the company, it’s not entirely healthy for the employee, even with a lessened commute time and flexible work hours. In the present day, articles and studies abound from Forbes to Stanford University about the terrorizing effects that working from home can have on one’s mental health.

Short of the quarantine-fueled isolation rampant globally in the time of COVID, why does working from home have such a negative effect on employees if it’s so good for productivity?

The study found that teleworking tends to “lengthen working hours, to create interference between work and personal life, and to result in work intensification.” Ultimately, this has been shown to lead to high levels of stress, “with negative consequences for workers’ health and well-being.”

Though it depends on the data of individual countries, the general consensus is that teleworkers work more than in-office workers, most of the time more than 40 hours a week. This could partially be attributed to the aforementioned commute time, the somewhat informal nature of being contacted outside of what was in the past considered normal business hours.

Additionally, for workers who are working non-salaried positions, it’s said that a whopping “80 percent of overtime done by teleworkers remains unpaid (an average of 7.8 hours), compared to 60 percent of overtime done by office workers (an average of 5 hours).” This work, according to the available data, is always unpaid – and much harder to differentiate from paid work if one is working from home constantly.

The second issue plaguing at-home workers is that of the “lack of clear boundaries… leading to confusion for the employee and their personal life” as one’s workday is spread out from their waking to their resting hours. Interestingly, this study notes that the issue of boundaries is likewise “difficult for managers as well as employees.” This is because when they find themselves hearing from employees during non-traditional work hours, or seemingly engaged in a non-work activity during work hours, it is “not clear when employees are at work and when they are not.”

What can we do about it?

The teleworking phenomenon has had some red flags all along, mainly around that of over-working, even if it means increased productivity. Sadly, though the study posits solutions and potential policy changes, it’s clear that over the years, not much has been done to improve the work from home experience.

Additionally, working from home is not a one-size-fits-all model, and an employee’s personal life should be taken into account when constructing the ideal work environment for them. The main issue with working from home appears to be that employees just don’t know when to stop working, which tricks a company into thinking they’re being more productive. But real productivity happens when employees are working smart, and not hard.

In 2015, the company Vynamic “reported an increase in productivity after shutting down access to its company network servers on weekends and from 22.00 to 06.00 on weekdays.” The company asserted that their positive outcome was due to “employees getting better rest and having increased well-being.”

Just as Vynamic did in 2015, this European Foundation study suggests that a way to aid productivity while also maintaining employee well-being is to engage in “restricting informal, supplemental [telework], excessively long working hours, and high levels of mobility and work intensity.”

Ultimately, the study concludes that “working time and non-working time have to be treated differently according to the type of [teleworking] that employees are doing. Regulations have to be clear in this respect,” from the standpoint of either the company or the managers involved.