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Remote work boosts productivity? Only for creative tasks, says new research

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Advocates of remote work have plenty of scientific ammunition to win over skeptics. After all, study after study after field trial has shown that workers get more done when they can work away from the office. But what’s true on average isn’t always true for each particular case, as experience teaches, and new research confirms.

We all know that some personality types find that the lack of structure when telecommuting hobbles their productivity. And most of us have experienced the phenomenon that some environments are less conductive to certain types of work than others, from noisy offices interrupting concentration to sunny days luring you away from a stack of unappealing tasks. Now a new study by economist E. Glenn Dutcher that’s soon to be published in Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization and was outlined recently in The Wall Street Journal, put this anecdotal evidence that remote work productivity gains vary depending on the person and the task to the test. The WSJ’s Week in Ideas column summarizes:

Researchers assigned two tasks to 125 participants. The first was rote and repetitive; the other involved coming up with as many unusual uses for ordinary objects as possible, a test often used by psychologists to measure creativity. About half the participants did the tasks in a supervised lab, the other half remotely.

On the uncreative tasks, people were 6 percent to 10 percent less productive outside the lab. The fall-off was steepest among the least productive third of workers. (People who reported procrastinating on their homework were also, unsurprisingly, poor telecommuters—as were men.) On the creative tasks, by contrast, people were 11 percent to 20 percent more productive outside the lab.

“Lack of structure often abets creativity,” concludes the column, but the inverse is just as obviously true. The abundance of alternatives at home, from that suddenly urgent load of laundry to the siren song of your favorite guilty pleasure TV show, can make it harder to get routine (read: mind-numbing) tasks done. For these less exciting to-do items, this new research suggests, locking yourself into working by heading to the office might be a better bet. And if you’re prone to picking up the remote rather than face even relatively enjoyable tasks, this is probably even more true.

Do you find you have to corral yourself into certain environments to get boring tasks done, and if so, where do you head?

Image courtesy of Flickr user herval.

4 Responses to “Remote work boosts productivity? Only for creative tasks, says new research”

  1. Jang Hermosura

    Working remotely works for me though. I can’t speak for everybody. My boss thinks that working with screen shots and sever logs as proof whether you are working or not is somewhat invasive on the part of the worker, so he bases everything on TRUST.

    Who would want to take advantage of that trust and not be productive at all? It brings about more productivity in me.


  2. petedrinnan

    I am finding that social media and collaboration tools are making it easier to do what I call soft monitoring for employee activity. This works whether the employee is sitting next to me or in another country. I once had an employee who was “working” from home who told me she had been working all day. I sent her the server logs that showed she had not even logged in that day. Checkmate!

  3. Paul Calento

    Remote work, from both a human capita management and expense standpoint needs to be looked at from a risk model. Let’s say that remote computing reduces productivity. It needs to be weighed against the reduced physical expenses needed for that employee. The decision to employ or not, depends on factors larger than just the remote worker issue itself.