Post-pandemic — should we keep working from home?

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Reporter Jad Sleiman's closet studio (Jad Sleiman/ WHYY)

Reporter Jad Sleiman's closet studio (Jad Sleiman/ WHYY)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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Working from home, for me, has been nothing short of incredible. Sure, like everyone else, I still worry about my health and about the economy and layoffs. But at least for the moment, I have my cat, my piano, vodka, and a PlayStation right here at what’s become work.

I do interviews in my yard on a milk crate, wearing the same shirt I’ve worn all week. I record radio stories (this one included) in my closet. I don’t set an alarm most days, waking mostly when a sunbeam creeps from my floor to my pillow.

I’ve also felt focused and have produced more stories than usual during this time. I very honestly never want this part of the pandemic to end.

But every day, more Americans are packing up the home office and going back to work.

So I set out to see: Do we have to? Is there a good reason we should?

Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom started looking into work from home back in 2011, when he found out the unassuming, middle-aged Asian student in the back of his class was the founding CEO of a giant Chinese company.

“It was quoted at that time on NASDAQ; it was worth about $15 billion,” Bloom said.

The company was CTrip, a Chinese travel booking service akin to Expedia or Priceline. At the time, it had 15,000 employees. The student was entrepreneur James Liang.

“James himself was worth like, I dunno, half a billion,” Bloom said. “I looked him up online and the first hit that came up was China’s 500 richest people, and he was definitely not 500.”

During a class discussion, Liang said his company was thinking about work from home. It was expanding, and feeling growing pains.

“They were paying a fortune for this huge office in downtown Shanghai,” Bloom said.

The question for CTrip wasn’t whether work from home would cost money — it was how much. And whether work from home was going to save it enough in rent to offset a decline in productivity?

“In their view, some share of people would start watching the Chinese version of Jerry Springer or Oprah Winfrey or something, you know — the saying is the three great enemies of working from home are the fridge, the television and the bed,” Bloom said.

Bloom was intrigued. He had been studying what he called “being nice to people” work policies, and asked Liang if he could tag along back to China and see how it all played out as part of a study.

The work from home experiment

Liang had lived and worked in the United States, and his Shanghai offices were very American, what Bloom calls a Dilbertian nightmare, like the comic strip.

“It was modern office cubicles, you know, a canteen six or seven floors, if you walked around the office, you wouldn’t immediately think this is China. It looks like something [out] of, you know, New York or Philly or Houston or any part of the U.S.,” Bloom said.

The daily grind was typical office work: phone calls with clients, emails, dealing with web issues. The company did a pseudo-pilot study of work from home with only five employees. Results were promising.

“People worked harder because their parents made them work harder,” Bloom recalled.

Armed with that insight, CTrip scaled up, asked for volunteers to try work from home, and got some 500.

“We took the 500 and randomized them by even and odd birthdays. So if you’re born on, like, the second, the fourth, the sixth of the month, go home for nine months, and the odd stay in the office, and it’s the same exact idea of how you’d do a randomized control trial on drugs for the FDA,” he said.

So nine months of travel booking later, they had the results.

“The firm was, like, amazed,” Bloom said. “I mean honestly, it was not remotely what they’re expecting.”

When they crunched the numbers, it turned out the homebodies were 13% more productive than the office workers. It was easy to tell by looking at booking numbers and client calls. To put that in perspective, it’s like each and every one of them was working an extra half-day every week, at no extra cost.

“They were increasing profits by about $2,000 a year for each employee that was working from home,” he said.

Bloom looked into where the boost came from. First off, 9-to-5 actually became 9-to-5. They worked their full hours.

“And the reason is, you know, they weren’t hit by commuting problems, or their motorbike broke down, or they took a long lunch break, or they had to leave early to go to the doctor’s,” Bloom said. “There was much less of those interruptions.”

There was much less of any kind of interruption.

“They were just more productive per minute, and they said it was quieter and easier to concentrate,” he said.

An important caveat here is all the volunteers had spare rooms they could dedicate to work, a luxurious solitude not everyone forced into working from home has now. I’m lucky enough to live alone, only having to deal with my cat begging me to throw her ball by standing over it and mournfully yowling.

Reporter Jad Sleiman’s cat (Jad Sleiman/ WHYY)

Bloom, on the other hand, has human children in his workspace.

“My youngest is 4. She regularly, I mean like this is five to 10 times a day, comes into my office shouting, ‘Doo-Doo, Doo-Doo,’ which is her nickname for me. ‘I’m bored. I want to play, come with me.’ And then I say, ‘I’ve got a phone call, I have to work.’” Bloom said.

“And she’s just like, ‘Why do you have to work?’ And I say, ‘Daddy has to earn money.’”

That’s when his daughter usually offers her collection of loose change to help support the family.

In his research on CTrip, “Doo-Doo” also found that far fewer people quit, which was noteworthy since the company had pretty high churn at the time. It seemed to suggest that once they started working from home, folks started enjoying their jobs more.

Sleep = success

That’s been true for me, during these past few months of working from home, and I think it’s related to what I can do when I’m not working — I can take naps.

I have never gotten so much sleep in my adult life. And sleep scientist Sara Alger tells me I probably needed it.

“Interestingly, if you subjectively measure it, you ask somebody, ‘Do you feel tired? Do you feel like you’re not performing at your best?’ A lot of the times, they’re very inaccurate about that,” she said.

Alger works for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

“They’re like, ‘Oh, no, I’m fine. I had four hours of sleep last night, but I’m great,’ but then you objectively test them, and no, they’re not great. They show real impairments,” she said.

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I tell her about the solemn, joyless cups of coffee I used to have in the office every day, pre-pandemic, right around 2 p.m. I would get the coffee, piping hot from our office machine, put in two ice cubes, and just down it like a kid taking cough medicine.

Without it, I would get this crazy urge to nap under my desk that I’d have to fight the rest of the day. Alger said I was fighting nature.

“Your circadian cycle has a natural dip in the afternoon, and so a lot of people think this is the post-lunch dip and it has to do with them having had a big lunch, but it’s really the natural dip in your circadian rhythm,” she said. “Both your homeostatic pressure or need for sleep and your circadian dip in alertness coincide — that’s just the best time to try to get one in there.”

She’s talking about a nap, yes, for a 30-year-old professional. Alger’s been pushing naps in the workplace for years.

“Our corporate culture America, a lot of it is based around the idea that you have to sacrifice things to be successful,” she said. ”Like to sacrifice your social life or your family time or, most importantly, sacrifice your sleep to have more time to be successful.”

Alger thinks corporate America has it backward, that actually sacrificing sleep means sacrificing success. Her background is in cognitive neuroscience, and she said naps do amazing things for us.

“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that when you go to sleep, it’s not like a computer, so you’re not shutting your brain off,” she said. “The brain is actually very active.”

She broke it down for me: A short power nap, like 20 minutes, gives your brain something caffeine can’t — sleep spindles. They’re bursts of brain waves that last half a second or so, you can actually see muscle twitching associated with it.

“They are thought to help reactivate memory traces,” Alger said.

The more you remember, the more you learn. And a short nap also pays into your daily sleep debt. Its effects last longer than coffee.

“It can sustain you longer because you’re sort of paying into the homeostatic need for sleep [that] has been rising throughout the day, as long as you’ve been awake,” she said.

Napping is good for companies, Alger said. It can boost productivity and problem solving and has real health benefits for the employee.

Even when you’re not into napping, working from home could mean that you use your time more effectively, under any circumstance.

“I mean, being British, you know, many times I’ve come into work with a stinking hangover, and you know, by 2 in the afternoon, I’m done,” Nicholas Bloom, the Stanford economics professor, said.

“If I’m in the office, I kind of feel like I should stick around. If I’m at home, quite honestly, you know, [I] clock off,” he said. “I can maybe go clean, I’ll do the laundry, go for a run.”

That’s not the kind of thing you can do when you’re working in the office. When my brain was fried, I would sometimes scroll through bits of Reddit I’d already seen, or stare at YouTube videos.

Bloom said it’s OK for our brains to need breaks.

“It’s very hard to concentrate all the time. There’s lots of studies that psychologists do about how there’s only so much energy I believe your brain can put into allowing you to concentrate,” he said.

Working from home lets us kind of just accept that, and fall into a more natural rhythm of work and rest, Bloom said.

“So my day is structured slightly differently,” he said. “I start earlier, go for a run, work for a while, actually see my kids over dinner in the early evening, and then sometimes work a bit later at night.“

Is work from home for everyone?

Talking with Bloom about working from home, it sounded like this was a win-win all around. But then he tells me about what happened after the CTrip study.

“Fifty percent of their original group that volunteered to go home and had been at home for nine months decided they wanted to come back into the office, and the big complaint was loneliness and depression,” he said.

It turned out that especially among the younger workers, being home was a social loss. Bloom said going to work can play an important role in your social life.

“If you’re born in Philly and go to university in New York and you’re working in San Francisco, you may not know a lot of people in San Francisco, and your workplace is a key part of your social life. And if you’re cut off from it, it’s painful,” he said.

Bloom’s study found choice is hugely important when it comes to work from home.

With CTrip, after workers who wanted to go back to the office left the experimental group, the productivity of the hardcore homebodies on average rose again to 25%. Like they were working full Saturdays every week. Pre-pandemic, about a fifth of CTrip workers voluntarily worked from home, most happily stayed in the office.

So there’s a real case for permanent work from home — for some people.

Who works best from home?

Laura Hambley is an organizational and industrial psychologist who tries to figure out who those people are.

“This COVID … sudden transition is less than ideal,” she said. “People didn’t have time to prepare right, to get the right training, and they’re just all thrown into it.”

Some people really aren’t cut out for it. To figure if work from home will work for folks, Hambley uses a kind of personality test.

Introverts, perhaps unsurprisingly, do very well. For them, just being at work takes work.

“Where there’s people all around and there’s interruptions and conversations and they may like people, but they need to recharge from that,” she said. “So they feel kind of like working from home is a dream for them in terms of they get that focus, they get the time on their own.”

That’s kind of me — after two years on the job, I can count my watercooler conversations on one hand.

Hambley also found that confident workers thrive as well, those with high task confidence. As in, you don’t typically need to ask a colleague to look over your work.

“So someone who’s new in their career and just starting their very first job, and then COVID hits and they’re not a confident person to begin with, this would be difficult,” she said.

Most people are somewhere in the middle, most productive with a few days in the office and a few at home, she has found.

Which jives coincidentally with what many public health experts want in the new normal — staggered shifts, reduced occupancy.

The bottom line, though, is that most people won’t know until they try it, she said. If there’s any silver lining in this mass work-from-home experience, it’s that more people are trying it, forced to get over this fear.

“It’s fear that people aren’t productive,” Hambley said. “But you should be able to know whether people are productive based on how you evaluate their performance and how you measure performance, regardless of whether you see them or not.”

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