“[Covid-19] will create a productivity disaster for firms,” says Nicholas Bloom, senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (https://news.stanford.edu/2020/03/30/productivity-pitfalls-working-home-age-covid-19/).
It’s worth considering whether Bloom is correct as his statement is a strong departure from his research that actually supports the merits from working from home. In a study published in 2015, Bloom showed that performance increased 13% and employee resignations decreased by 50% in a nine month experiment where 1000 employees in a Chinese travel company worked from home.
However, Bloom believes conditions today are unlike those in his research and will lead to a sharp drop in global productivity. One key difference between the study and the current situation is that parents have to take care of their children while working. “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.”
These situations are exacerbated by the fact many families do not have separate work offices and have to share spaces during working hours. Lastly, Bloom constructed the study where employees were required to work in-person once a week to promote collaborative thinking and a spontaneous exchange of ideas, which we currently are unable to do in an environment of social distancing.
In order to evaluate Bloom’s research, I compared my own productivity since HBS moved classes online to the period right before spring break where I was still on campus. I evaluated productivity on two levels – total hours worked and efficiency of hours worked. I construct indices to track both and plot them below – higher values correspond to increased total hours and increased efficiency. I compare index values over periods spanning 21 days, adjusted to take into account variations in daily schedules (i.e. day 0 on-campus and day 0 online both correspond to a Monday).
- Takeaway 1: The shift to online learning has not increased total work hours. Over periods spanning 21 days, there are many days where working on-campus led to higher work hours than working online.
- Takeaway 2: Total work efficiency has generally increased since shifting to online learning. I attribute this to the fact I take fewer breaks in between study blocks because there are fewer distractions such as meetings and commuting.
Like the participants in Bloom’s study, I’m experiencing a slight increase in work performance since working from home. This increase is attributable not to total work hours but in the efficiency of those hours worked. I do fit the profile of the research participants in not having kids and having my own room to work from. Bloom’s concern still stands for those with families, however, which I don’t have data for but anecdotal evidence in speaking to classmates and alumni with kids.
In trying to reconcile all this, I arrive at the conclusion that everyone is experiencing WFH a bit differently, and that we should be mindful of those with different circumstances and ready to offer a helping hand. If you’d like to share your views on post or how WFH has been affecting your own productivity, please do comment below!