Does working from home make you more productive? Yes (with data)!

[note: some data in this post is missing-- given that we work on and troubleshoot our own software, sometimes we don't get to log ALL of our time in a week, but it's consistent enough that I don't think it skews these results in a big way.  We also had a vacation in each of the months in question for 1 team member]

So about a month ago, the RescueTime product team decided to experiment with working from home to see how it would effect how we spend our time.  The initial plan was to run the experiment for a week, but we realized that we were paying too close attention to the affects of the experiment and would let it “bake” for a few more weeks to get some better data.  The data (4 weeks of it) is in, and there are a few surprises.

The control – Team of 5 Working from Work (in the office!)

Total computer time logged: 582h 20m
Dev, Design, or writing time: 224h 20m
Communication/meetings: 225h 10m

Efficiency Score: 1.33 (RescueTime calculates this score based on the ratio of self-identified productive activities versus distracting ones)
Productive apps/sites: 504h 50m
Distracting apps/sites: 61h 15m
Neutral apps/sites: 16h 15m

The experiment – Team of 5 Working from Home

Total computer time logged: 657h 50m
Dev, Design, or writing time: 287h 20m
Communication/meetings: 223h 20m

Efficiency Score: 1.30 (RescueTime calculates this score based on the ratio of self-identified productive activities versus distracting ones)
Productive apps/sites: 543h 20m
Distracting apps/sites: 72h 28m
Neutral apps/sites: 42h 02m (much of this is Google Chrome for the Mac, which RescueTime currently doesn’t track sites for– likely split between productive and distracting)

So the ratio of activities doesn’t seem to be meaningfully different.  There are less meetings (“drive by” meetings and formal ones are both tracked) but there’s a lot more IM and email.  That’s not what we could’ve expected.

But what seems to be hugely different are the totals.  Take out the commutes and the longer lunches, and the totals are quit different.

Here’s a chart:

It doesn’t look like much, but 5 people logged an extra 75 hours in a month, with the vast majority of those extra hours being productive development or design hours (about 63 extra dev/design hours were logged in the working from home month).

How we FELT

Obviously, working from home isn’t just about the hours logged.  When talking to the team, feelings on the experiment were pretty mixed:

  • Most people felt like we weren’t working as hard from home and it felt like a better work/life balance.  Turns out we were working a fair bit harder, but the time reclaimed made it feel more relaxing.
  • The team felt a bit less energized…  The synergy that you get when people are bouncing around ideas is pretty cool– we had a bit less of that (though we had wednesday lunches that helped a bit here).
  • People worked odd hours.  Working from the office forces you into the 8-6 mode and makes it awkward to tune out in the afternoon if your heart just isn’t in it.  Conversely, when you put in your 9+ hours at work, you’re a lot less inclined to work in the evening (even if you were spinning your wheels all day).  I think it’s better to work when you feel like it than to force an artificial schedule.
  • People were lonely, but dealt with it.  We all joked how excited we were to see our wives when they got home.  I personally made a much greater effort to be social with friends.  This was a lot better than the “I just want to get home and veg out” instinct that I tend to have after a long day at work.

Conclusions

Working from home gives folks a lot more time in front of a computer, if that’s what they are after.  With commutes, associated setup/teardown time, getting coffee from starbucks, lunches, and people dropping into the office, we’re all losing hours.  To be clear, all work and no play is a bad idea…  The really interesting thing about working from home is that we felt like we weren’t working as hard, but were actually logging about 22% more development and design hours.

What we’re going to do Next

A lot of us have expressed that, despite all of this, we kinda miss the office.  We’re talking about next steps.  I’m personally interested to try a hybrid approach.


24 Comments on “Does working from home make you more productive? Yes (with data)!”

  1. Rosli says:

    Great post and for me I am into both world. Have my own conventional business and also online business which is more to work from home type.

    I am into marketing line for more than 18 years now despite I am an Engineer by qualification. But one thing I found out that working from home gives me more time to be with my family and in order to achieve my target I need to have a very good disciplines to organize my daily activities, may it be online work or seeing customers outside.

    Anyway it is a great post here.

    Have a good day.

    Rosli from Malaysia

  2. Jrgns says:

    You’ve got affect and effect switched:

    Working from home will affect your productivity. The effect is that you get more work done…

  3. gst says:

    It depends.

    To be productive I need physical exercise. When I go to office I usually go by bicycle – which counts as some form of exercise (we have showers in the office :). When I’m working from home I spend about the same time working out because I need to go running or doing something else, before I’m able to get some work done.

    So for me there is not much of a difference. However, working from office gives me the chance to better separate private life from work life and thereby to better relax when at home.

    • Tony Wright says:

      Yeah, exercise is a bit deal for me too. The plus with the WFH angle is that I can hop on the exercise bike when I start to flounder at work and my shower is 20 feet away. A lot of folks who need exercise probably go to the gym, which can be a bit of a logistical time sink… Overall, tho– I think it’s a VERY personal thing. Clearly some people (and maybe some job types?) are more productive at work than at home.

  4. Adriana Ceausescu says:

    Yeap, great job, man!

  5. Jack says:

    Fascinating stuff. Although I’d say I feel about the same in terms of being worn out at the end of the day regardless of whether I go to the office or not.

  6. Savings says:

    Just wondering, there was a massive increase in “Neutral” activities between the 2 places. What did these include?

    Were there any insights into how these could be better channelled at home vs at work and therefore create a little more productive time?

    • Tony Wright says:

      That caught my eye too. When I dug into it, the difference was largely because two team members were experimenting with the Google Chrome Beta for the Mac. Because it’s a beta, we haven’t yet started tracking sites in it (though we do for for Chrome for Windows). So instead of being able to differentiate good browsing (gmail, bug tracking app) and distracting browsing (news sites, digg), we just got a lump of Chrome time. In reality, that browser time is probably split between productive and distracting stuff.

  7. Alex Hillman says:

    Very cool experiment, thanks for sharing the results!

    I co-founded a coworking space in Philadelphia called IndyHall a couple of years ago because I found the same thing: while I was doing more actual work without the distractions of meetings and derailing by managers changing their minds, i found myself working odd hours ruining my work-life balance long term (in fact, I was working more just because I could work all the time) and I really missed bouncing ideas off of smart people, which affected my work quality over time.

    IndyHall (and dozens of other coworking spaces like it) attempt to strike a balance and encourage “productive distractions”, that keep you energized but are easy to jump in and out of unlike meetings.

    I’d love to see this experiment conducted to compare/contrast individuals in an office, then from home, then from IndyHall!

    • Tony Wright says:

      We’re actually asking our users a bit more information like this so we can get some broader data than our (admittedly unscientific) experiment. Of course, we aren’t asking about coworking! At some point down the road (once enough folks have answered the questions), we’ll be able to look at aggregate data from tens or hundreds of thousands of knowledge workers rather than our little team of 5!

    • Jesse T says:

      I’m the manager at Citizen Space (a co working space in San Francisco) and we have a group of web developers that work out of our space once a week instead of their usual 1 hr commute to Mountain View. They’ve liked coworking because it has the camaraderie of being around people, but w/o the time sink of being surrounded by their usual office crowd, meetings, etc. I’d definitely suggest looking at coworking spaces as a productive hybrid option (sociability and productivity).

  8. Thanks for this experiment. There isn’t a lot of data available about working distributed (without an office). I do think there is a difference to trying it as an experiment vs. committing to a distributed work environment. When there is no office and you know that the majority of your work will be done without physical interaction, you put processes and tools in place to facilitate the ‘group spark’ that normally comes from being physically co-located. The increase in emails and IMs you experienced shows the start of this process shift. There are so many great tools available now including ones for communication (like Skype), real-time meetings (like GoToMeeting), Data Sharing (like Google Docs), schedule coordination (like Airset), and the newest onset of collaborative design tools that enable that ‘group spark’ from remote. But much of it is simple – communicate with each other. Take some time to connect via technology the way you expect to in the office (start a skype call by aksing how the kids are the way you would have at the water cooler).
    Some other things I have experienced that work well for distributed companies is to have regular company meetings. These might only be once a year but they budget these as they would budget for the office space they don’t have to lease (and even pretty elaborate meetings in exotic locations are less than a year’s worth of lease). Also simple things like have an open skype chat for the group can help the ‘group spark’ happen and stay alive.
    Distributed companies an focus on hiring the best, most appropriate employees no matter where they live and allowing people to be their most productive by having more control over their work-life balance. The distributed workers I know who have settled into it really love it and don’t want to go back to the office.

    • Tony Wright says:

      “Some other things I have experienced that work well for distributed companies is to have regular company meetings.”

      That’s a great point. I think a pure work from home experience doesn’t necessarily build the tight-knit team that being in the same office can. Frequent get-togethers/meetings can both cement those virtual relationships and make room for some spontaneous interaction. One very successful largely-virtual company (WordPress!) has company vacations, if I remember correctly. With the money you save on office space, you could imagine taking the whole team someplace interesting to work a little, play a little, brainstorm a little, etc.

  9. Steve says:

    It’s a lot harder to track, but what about what you’re accomplishing? I find that working over a VPN connection is invariably slower than working on the local network at work. So I might spend more time, but only because it takes more time to get anything done.

    • Tony Wright says:

      Righto, @steve! It’s obviously near impossible to track output (quality and quantity). We’re making the assumption here that if we hire people who do quality work and they spend more time on the activities that are productive, we’ll have more high quality work. But you raise a good point– maybe the environment effects the quality of our teams work as well as the quantity of it. We did a pretty big release during the work from home phase and it went REALLY well, all things considering. Of course, that could be due to a whole mess of factors.

  10. Dave says:

    Great stuff! A few thoughts:
    1) measuring productivity by activity is a great first step. I’d love to see you add in ‘quantity of work product’ and ‘quality’ attributes to get a meaningful answer. (e.g. How much product got built? How good was it?)
    2) spontaneous interaction (I think you call it “intangible synergy”) can produce great, valuable intellectual capital – this is especially valuable in a knowledge business like software. Examples: patentable inventions, trade secrets, good design, new features, customer insights, Admittedly its hard to measure. Is there as much of this produced in a work-from-home team? How do you measure it?
    – Dave

    • Tony Wright says:

      Yeah, work product is a tricky thing to measure. Lines of code? Bugs generated? For designers or “softer” professions it gets even harder. Regarding #2– that’s the stickiest wicket of all, eh? I saw a tweet the other day that read: “Note: Interruption is not collaboration”. I think a lot of spontaneous interaction is fairly flow-interruptive. Big open-floor offices tend to result in people getting sucked away from production and into conversation (which can sometimes be good!). I tend to wonder about a hybrid approach. What about 2-3 days at the office and 2-3 at home? Best of both worlds? Another thought is that IM (probably used) can be pretty spontaneous. I personally dial IM interruptions WAY down, but we definitely had a few spontaneous “Hey can you jump on video chat?” IM pings…

  11. Dee says:

    I used to do a hybrid each week, working from home 3 days and in the office 2 days. Office time was spent on meetings and the “face time” thing with colleagues/management. When I worked from home, I gained productive time by not having to spend 1-2 hours each day commuting (I live in NYC) and avoiding the time wasting cubicle “drop bys” that are invariably done by super chatty people who don’t know when to wrap it up. I also often worked with colleagues in vastly different time zones (domestic and global) so having flexibility in my day (for instance, working from 9-12, doing personal stuff like work out, errands, etc til 3, then back to work from 3-7 or 8) was amazing and so much better for work/life balance. I also have a separate room for an office so it was easy to just force myself to quit at a certain time and stick to it.

    I think the hybrid thing is really the ideal situation for increasing productivity while maintaining a superior work/life balance.

  12. I may get more done in total…but less of that total will be actual work…

  13. Gorm Casper says:

    I work in a (somewhat) hybrid environment, which basically means I can ask to work from home when I feel like it (and so far hasn’t got a “no”).

    This is obviously just my personal experience, but when I work from home, the quality of my work is superior to when I sit at the office. I write more code, and my designs are far more solid – worked through and thought through.

    As far as I can tell, there are three main reasons:
    1) I am *only* valued on my work when I work from home. If I sit at the office I can safely say “I’m working on it…” and not commit any code or designs for an entire day. This is not so when I work from home. Results count then.
    2) I feel I “earned” a work-from-home day (even though I could probably get as many as I wanted), and feel like I must work harder so they also consider it a good idea.
    3) I actually have 2 hours each way to work. So I feel I spend a LOT less time on work when working from home, and thus simply work more hours.

  14. Carter Cole says:

    ill have to show this to mi boss

  15. Frank says:

    Definitely sending this one over to my boss ;)

  16. [...] Naturally…the west is the opposite…and amazingly…working from home is turning out to be as productive as office, as this interesting piece suggests! [...]