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Scientists prove telecommuting is awesome

You’re a manager and you’re thinking of allowing your team to telecommute. The reasons sound sensible enough: Anecdotal evidence suggests remote work leads to happier more productive workers and less environmental impact. But imagine your boss is a bit of a stickler. He’s not going to stand for any touchy-feely qualitative reports, or any “my cousin’s best friend tried it and liked it” type stories. He’s a hard numbers man. Is there anything you can offer him?

As of now, yes. Previous studies of telecommuting may have been less than scientifically rigorous, but recently researchers out of Stanford University set out to compare office-based employees with telecommuters in as careful and controlled a manner as scientists usually examine the effects of new pharmaceuticals, relying on a large sample and a control group.

To conduct this test, the researchers partnered with a Chinese travel agency interested in exploring telecommuting with more than 12,000 employees. Workers were asked whether they would volunteer to dial — rather than commute — in and were then screened to ensure their home-based workspace was adequate and they had a solid enough record to be trustworthy. Then 255 were set free to telecommute. The results, according to were heartening:

After a few weeks of the experiment, it was clear that the telecommuters were performing better than their counterparts in the office. They took more calls (it was quieter and there were fewer distractions at home) and worked more hours (they lost less time to late arrivals and sick breaks) and more days (fewer sick days). This translated into greater profits for the company because more calls equaled more sales. The telecommuters were also less likely to quit their jobs, which meant less turnover for the company.

The company considered the experiment so successful that they implemented a wider telecommuting policy.

If your boss wants more details, this PDF of the preliminary findings posted by Stanford should satisfy him. The experiment may have been an all-around success for fans of telecommuting, but it also should be noted that not all the 255 guinea pigs fell into that category after trying out working from home. Slate investigated the research and reports,

Surprisingly, only about one-half of the employees agreed to the deal, and many of those involved in the original experiment decided that they’d had enough, preferring the hours in commute in exchange for the human interaction of office life and a fixed beginning and end to each work day. The home office isn’t for everyone.

So think carefully before you yourself decide to telecommute. But if it’s just a matter of convincing your company higher-ups to make it an option, you now come well armed with evidence.

Would this solid scientific evidence sway your firm to be more open to remote work?

Image courtesy of Flick user BrokenCities.

4 Responses to “Scientists prove telecommuting is awesome”

  1. I feel like it still depends on the individual. Even though this may prove that telecommuting CAN BE a legitimate option, we still know that it doesn’t work for everyone. A practical solution would be to grant the requester permission to telecommute on a trail basis (if that’s at all possible). If the person’s work is up to par, then they can work from wherever. If it’s not, well, then they can’t really argue with the logic of keeping them in the office.

  2. Oh, I forgot to mention that the JALA-designed tests also involved comparable numbers and control groups. They also included suitable pre-telecommuting training for the telecommuters and their supervisors and detailed statistical analysis of the results. The dropout rate was about 2%, much lower than reported above. Of course the technology available in those days was several generations behind what’s available now.

  3. Wow, Stanford has finally replicated a test done by the University of Southern California in 1973-74! Then there were the tests of telecommuting (designed by JALA International) with the State of California and the City of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, all of which had results similar to, or better than, the Stanford-Chinese project. Why is this still news?

  4. Wow! At last Stanford, with a Chinese company(!), has replicated a test of telecommuting that the University of Southern California conducted in 1973! Of course that test didn’t include a control group but JALA’s tests with the State of California in 1987-90 and with the City of Los Angeles in 1990-93 did have control groups and produced results similar to – or better than – the Stanford test, as did tests with Fortune 100 companies in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. So if your boss says, “well that was then but this is NOW” remind her that the telecommute-supporting technology in those days was far less user friendly that it is now.
    How often do you have to prove something works in order to get people to believe it?