Study: When employees don't have to commute, they work
When employees are allowed to work remotely, they most often use the time they would have spent commuting to the office working.
On average, employees save 72 minutes in commute time every day when they're allowed to work from home rather than in the office, according to the Global Survey of Working Arrangements (G-SWA) study performed by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).
"That's a large time savings, especially when multiplied by hundreds of millions of workers around the world," the study said. "These results suggest that much of the time savings flow back to employers, and that children and other caregiving recipients also benefit."
On average, those who work from home devote 40% of their commute time savings to primary and secondary job tasks, 34% to leisure, and 11% to caregiving.
Not surprisingly, the study found workers with children allocate more of the commute time savings to caregiving.
The data was collected from a survey of about 19,000 to 35,000 employees based on two survey periods. The G-SWA survey took place in 15 countries in late July and early August 2021 and in an overlapping set of 25 countries in late January and early February 2022. The workers surveyed were 20 to 59 years of age, and all had finished primary school. In addition to basic questions on demographics and labor market outcomes, the survey asked about current and planned work-from-home levels, commute time, and more.
Other recent studies have arrived at similar conclusions.
According to Gartner Research, a key benefit of remote work is the time employees save on their commute, allowing them more time to spend with friends and family, catch up on sleep or focus on interests outside of work. The average one-way commute time in the US is 27.6 minutes; consequently, a round-trip into the office "costs" employees an hour of other activities they value, according to Gartner.
Overall, Gartner research found flexible hybrid-work models outperform others in terms of employee outcomes such as intent to stay at an organization, fatigue, and performance. All three translate directly to an organization's bottom line.
"Progressive organizations recognize this; they will not only be able to capitalize on the benefits of hybrid work, but also be employers of choice on the talent market," said Caitlin Duffy, director of Gartner Research's HR practice. "Employees want the autonomy, flexibility, and freedom to integrate work into their lives in the way that works best for them, and organizations can provide it by transitioning to hybrid and remote-work models."
Over the past year, some organizations have demanded employees return to the office at least some number of days a week, while others have required a full-time return to office. A recent survey by Resume Builder found that 90% of companies will require employees to get back into the office at least part of the week this year. And a fifth of those companies said they would fire workers who refuse.
Other studies, however, have found there is no measurable performance improvement when a worker is in office versus working from home. According to Owl Labs, a maker of videoconferencing devices, 62% of workers feel more productive when working remotely, and 51% say working from home was most productive for thinking creatively. Only 30% view working in the office as most effective for the same type of work.
"As recession fears loom, many leaders feel an instinct to take more control over work - including by mandating a rigid return to the office. That would be a big mistake," Duffy said.
While most organizations were forced to transition to remote work out of necessity for worker health and safety and business continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic, the shift uncovered numerous employee and organizational benefits of hybrid-work models - including improved productivity and worker flexibility, Duffy said.
Gartner research shows employees who are allowed to decide when they work are 2.3 times more likely to achieve higher performance than employees without autonomy. Autonomy also cuts worker fatigue almost in half (critical for sustaining performance over time) and makes peoplemore than twice as likely to stay with the organization. At a time when tech talent is in short supply, employee retention is essential for keeping organizations fully staffed, according to Gartner.
"Hybrid and remote work enable more human-centric work design, which places human beings at the center of work, rather than treating them as secondary components of the work environment," Duffy said. "A key underlying principle of human-centric work design is granting people and teams autonomy over how they do their work and achieve their outcomes, while holding them accountable for results."
According to another study by Forrester Research, 37% of US employers have a policy of one-to-four days in the office, while another 14% have few or no minimum days in the office, meaning that at least 51% operate under some sort of "anywhere-work" policy.
The number of US workdays spent at home has stabilized at around 30% since February 2021, according to studies from the Work From Home (WFH) Research group, up from 5% of days spent working from home pre-pandemic. Employers' plans for work-from-home policies in the future remains stable at about 2.3 days per week.
However, battles over back-to-office policies are expected to continue into 2023, according to J.P. Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research.
"Organizations have redefined their strategies or started to enforce policies - yet adherence has continued to be an issue, with employees not necessarily following policies," Gownder said.
Sixty percent of managers are still concerned that workers are less productive when working remotely, according to Owl Labs survey data. "That may be why over a third (37%) of employers have added or increased the use of employee activity tracking software in the past year," Owl Labs said in an email reply to Computerworld.
This year, Forrester predicts that 40% of companies with anywhere-work policies will try to pull back the reins, meaning they will shift from no minimum days in the office to two days a week, "or from two days in the office to three or four days."
"We also predict that half of these efforts will fail, because employees will voice their displeasure, fail to adhere to the policies, or leave as part of increased employee attrition numbers," Gownder said.
In the US, 13% of full-time employees are fully remote, 58% are full-time on site, and 29% are in a hybrid workplace arrangement, according to WFH Research's data for Q4 2022.
At the time of the NBER's October global survey, employees on average worked from home about 1.7 days per week. With that in mind, working from home saved about two hours per week per worker in 2021 and 2022. As employers are expected to cut back on at-home work polities, that amount of time will decrease to about one hour per week per worker.
"That's equivalent to 2.2% of a 46-hour workweek, the sum of 40 paid hours and six hours of commuting," NBER's study stated.
Daily commute time savings for employees who work from home does vary depending on the country. The US was on the lower end with a mean time of 55 minutes saved from not commuting. The commute time savings ranged from 51 minutes in Serbia, and 54 minutes in Poland, to 99 minutes in India, 100 in Japan, and 102 in China. In most countries, commute times exceeded an hour per day.
Studies also suggest that working from home reduces economy-wide energy consumption and pollution.
The number of monthly trips in the US to and from offices using public transportation also plummeted during the pandemic, and remain about 62% of what they were pre-pandemic, according to the Federal Transit Administration.
"Work from home and the associated drop in commuting also affect individuals and society through many other channels," the study stated. "More work from home also means lighter loads on transport systems and, in particular, less congestion at peak travel times."