How to Convince Your Boss to Let You Work From Home
Experts argue that employees who work from home are more productive, and they have new data to prove it
Is your boss reluctant to let you telecommute? You’ll want to tell her about this: A recent study led by a Stanford University economist and a Chinese graduate student found that call center workers at a Chinese travel website were more productive when working at home than their peers who worked at the office.
Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford, told Harvard Business Review that work-at-home employees at the company Ctrip completed more than 13 percent more calls than a control group of office-based employees.
“Ctrip got almost an extra workday a week out of them,” Bloom said.
“They also quit at half the rate of people in the office–way beyond what we anticipated,” he added. “And predictably, at-home workers reported much higher job satisfaction.”
Liz O’Donnell, the author of “Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman,” said that the study is great news for working moms.
“What it means is that we have another piece of data to go and negotiate some flextime, which I think we all know is going to be better for productivity,” she told BabyZone.
Exactly what can make a worker more productive at home than at the office? Think fewer interruptions by co-workers and less commuting stress. For working parents in particular, telecommuting can ease some of the pain that goes along with getting both yourself and your kids out the door in the morning, O’Donnell said.
Many working moms feel like they’ve “already worked a full day before getting to work,” she said.
Bloom, who conducted the study with Ctrip co-founder and grad student James Liang, told HBR that the work-at-home employees actually worked longer hours than their counterparts and took fewer sick days.
“Search ‘working remotely’ on the web, and everything that comes up will be supernegative and say that telecommuters don’t work as hard as people in the office,” Bloom said. “But actually, it’s quite the opposite.”
The Ctrip study isn’t the first to find that both employees and employers benefit from work-from-home opportunities. In 2009, Silicon Valley networking giant Cisco estimated that it saves $277 million each year thanks to increased productivity by its many telecommuting employees. More than 90 percent of the employees surveyed said telecommuting was somewhat or very important to their job satisfaction.
But would-be telecommuters take note: If you base your work-from-home case only on the Ctrip and Cisco studies, a skeptical boss could poke holes in your argument. For one thing, Cisco, as a company that produces networking tools, has an interest in encouraging telecommuting so some might be a bit leery of their data.
At Ctrip, meanwhile, the employees studied were all call center workers. As Bloom told HBR, “(t)he more robotic the work, the greater the benefits.” If your work is not “robotic” and your boss has read the study, she may not find its results relevant.
Last but most definitely, not least, there’s the Marissa Mayer factor. The celebrated Yahoo CEO (and working mom) famously banned working from home at the then-struggling company in 2013. Mayer reportedly made her decision after determining that work-at-home employees weren’t logging in enough.
Nonetheless, according to Bloom, “the evidence still suggests that with most jobs, a good rule of thumb is to let employees have one to two days a week at home.”
Such flexible arrangements help companies improve employee well-being, attract talent and lower attrition, he said.
Of course, many bosses will be less interested in the big picture and more interested in you and your performance. To help a superior see the light, O’Donnell, herself a veteran telecommuter, has the following tips:
- Assuming you only want to telecommute once or twice a week, make sure the days you pick are quiet ones that don’t typically involve many meetings.
- Offer something in return for your telecommuting privileges, such as getting into the office earlier on another day or taking on an extra responsibility.
- Determine whether someone else in your office has already tried telecommuting and failed. If that’s the case, come prepared with an explanation of why your situation would be different.
- Once you are telecommuting, don’t be afraid to “overcommunicate”–that is, call or email your boss more than you might otherwise so she can rest assured that you really are working and reachable whenever she needs you.
One caveat: The Ctrip study found that among work-from-home employees and in-office employees with comparable performance, the former group was less likely to be promoted. In a report on the study posted on the Stanford University website, researchers concluded that supervisors may have been less likely to notice the performance of the at-home workers. Another possibility: At-home workers weren’t developing the interpersonal skills necessary for managerial jobs.
Of course, employees who spend only part of their work week at home instead of at the office wouldn’t necessarily fall prey to such a “promotion penalty”… and they might just see their careers advance because they’re operating with a healthier frame of mind.
“The reality is–and you don’t hear about this at management team retreats–when people come to work, they bring all their stuff with them. We’re coming to work with invisible tasks on our brains: registering kids for daycare, making sure they have mittens about the right size, scheduling doctor’s appointments,” O’Donnell said. “We may be walking through the door at 8 every morning, but are we really showing up?”
Having a day when they have more flexibility to get these “invisible tasks” done, she said, “does so much for our ability to be fully present when we do show up at the office.”
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