In the debate over the future of work, the argument for hybrid home-office work arrangements just received another case exhibit.
After a Shanghai-based travel booking website tested what would happen when it allowed a sliver of employees to work from home on two days, attrition rates dropped and job satisfaction climbed.
Meanwhile, job performance did not suffer and self-assessed worker productivity edged up — leading management at Trip.com to extend the hybrid work approach to all its staffers after the six-month experiment ended earlier this year.
In a randomized trial among 1,612 software engineers, marketing and finance professionals, the data showed that attrition — or churn — rates were 35% lower for those allowed to work from home versus a control group.
The experiment showed a shift in time management for the hybrid workers, who worked around 80 minutes less on home days, but increased their overall weekly workload by about 30 minutes, sometimes because they worked on weekends. When these employees were in the office for face-to-face work, they still tended to use messaging and group video calls.
Hybrid work didn’t impact job-performance reviews or promotions, the study found, but the hybrid staffers produced 8% more lines of code and their self-assessed productivity edged up 1.8%.
“Hybrid work didn’t impact job performance reviews or promotions. In fact, the hybrid staffers produced 8% more lines of code and their self-assessed productivity edged up 1.8%.”
These are the results of a new study circulated Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggesting that when it comes to worker productivity there’s “perhaps a small, potentially positive impact” from the hybrid approach.
The study was co-authored by Stanford University economics professor and prominent remote-work researcher Nicholas Bloom, Stanford Ph.D. candidate Ruobing Han, and James Liang, chairman of Trip.com. (The co-authors do not have a financial relationship with Trip.com.)
“Overall this highlights how hybrid-[work from home] is often beneficial for both employees and firms but is usually underappreciated in advance. This was a common experience in the U.S. and Europe during the pandemic when WFH went from being rare to mainstream and is now a permanent feature for most graduate employees” wrote Bloom, who’s been researching the dynamics of remote and hybrid work in the COVID-19 era.
It’s also worth remembering that remote work is a luxury. Only 7.1% of workers in June teleworked specifically due to the pandemic, according to the latest jobs report, a decline from 7.4% in May. A Federal Reserve report released in May found that in late 2021, just 22% of people were working full-time from home.
When Trip.com announced the new policy in February, James Liang, the company’s executive chairman, told Reuters, “It is a good thing to work in a hybrid way and Chinese companies should try it. We hope more enterprises will join us in adopting this policy which is good for employees, companies and also society.”
A company spokeswoman referred MarketWatch to a February statement on Trip.com’s hybrid work policy, which framed the decision as an effort to strike a better work-life balance.
The study focused on a Chinese workplace, but this also remains a pressing issue for workers in America.
The pandemic’s earliest stages turned remote work into a massive contingency plan. As vaccination and treatments spread, more employers called staff back to the office, at least for a couple of days each week. But many people grew accustomed to the flexibility and the regained commute time, leading many workers to insist on at least some capacity to work from home. The economy’s labor shortage has given employees extra clout in asking for more time away from the physical office.
It’s a debate that’s mostly confined to white-collar professions and desk jobs while millions of workers still need to commute, pay gas and physically show up at workplaces.
There’s a spectrum of opinion in the C-Suite and even among workers. Many companies allow either hybrid or remote work, such as Airbnb
and Facebook parent company Meta
But there are also some outspoken backers of the in-person, back-at-the-office approach, including Elon Musk at Tesla
According to one measure of in-person work, there was a 44% average occupancy rate at office buildings in major metro areas in mid-July, according to Kastle, an office space security technology provider. That’s an increase from earlier in the month when people were away from the physical office — likely due to Fourth of July plans — but that’s roughly the national average rate Kastle data has been tracking in recent months.
“One argument against hybrid arrangements is that it keeps workers away from the spark of ideas that can come with face-to-face conference room meetings or random encounters at the water cooler.”
Others say hybrid work is a fallacy. Given a taste of greater freedom, one might easily conclude that office work had changed, or that it was sure to do so. But if you’d been chained to the office before the pandemic, you’re no less captive to it now—even though, in certain comfy moments, you could let yourself forget it. You were at home, but still, you were in the office. For you are an office worker, and the office is your home.
One argument against remote work and hybrid arrangements is that it keeps workers away from the spark of ideas that can come with face-to-face conference room meetings or random encounters at the water cooler.
Ian Bogost, director of the program in Film & Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, had this to say in The Atlantic: “Given a taste of greater freedom, one might easily conclude that office work had changed, or that it was sure to do so.”
“But if you’d been chained to the office before the pandemic, you’re no less captive to it now — even though, in certain comfy moments, you could let yourself forget it,” he wrote. “You were at home, but still, you were in the office. For you are an office worker, and the office is your home.”
Still, the latest study gives props to hybrid work. While other past academic research on work-from-home consequences have looked at call center staffers, the “employees in this experiment are graduate employees working in teams and creating new products and services. So this small positive result in a large sample of 1,612 employees is notable,” the study said.
The research also comes as recession talk keeps mounting. That may lead people just starting a new job to worry about their job security if companies need to cut costs to withstand a slowdown.
Some career experts say the best way people can safeguard against a layoff is focusing on their own job performance, wherever the setting.