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Working from home in the age of COVID-19


The productivity pitfalls of working from home in the age of COVID-19

Nicholas Bloom is widely known for his research showing the benefits of working from home. But in the current coronavirus crisis, the economist fears productivity will plummet.

“We are home working alongside our kids, in unsuitable spaces, with no choice and no in-office days,” says Bloom, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). “This will create a productivity disaster for firms.”

For those even a bit familiar with some of Bloom’s more popular scholarship, the economist’s dire prediction might come as a surprise. In 2015, the Quarterly Journal of Economics published a paper he co-authored extolling the benefits of working from home. The study drew attention and interest from journalists, business leaders and employees looking to avoid long commutes, skirt office politics and develop a better work-life balance.

That research was based on a randomized control trial on 1,000 employees of Ctrip, a Chinese travel company. The experiment revealed that working from home during a nine-month period led to a 13 percent increase in performance – almost an extra day of output per week – plus a 50 percent drop in employee-quit rates. The experiment was so successful that Ctrip rolled out working from home to the whole firm.

But what’s happening today with the Coronavirus crisis is completely different thanks to four factors: children, space, privacy and choice.

“Everyone assumes I would be gushing over the global rollout of working from home,” Says Bloom, who is also the William D. Eberle Professor of Economics in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “Unfortunately not.”

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of working at home for parents with younger children is managing their kids. The closure of schools and transition to “distance learning” for students has forced many working parents to take on the additional job of full-time teacher. One requirement for a successful work-from-home program for any business is the requirement that children are in school or daycare, Bloom says.

As a married father of four trying to maintain his research productivity and preparing to teach an online class to Stanford students, Bloom can speak with authority on this point.

“Working from home with your children is a productivity disaster,” Bloom says. “My 4-year-old regularly bursts into the room hoping to find me in a playful mood shouting “doodoo!” – her nickname for me – in the middle of conference calls.”

GORLICK, ADAM. “The Productivity Pitfalls of Working from Home in the Age of COVID-19.” Stanford News, 16 Apr. 2020, news.stanford.edu/2020/03/30/productivity-pitfalls-working-home-age-covid-19/.

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