Home Office vs. At the Office: Which Is More Efficient?

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Call it telecommuting, telework or working from home: It appears more of us are earning at least part of our salaries from home, and with the boss's blessings.

According to a survey by the human resources group WorldatWork, the number of Americans who work either from their homes or remotely at least one day a month rose by 74% between 2005 and 2008, to more than 17 million. And if you add to that figure the so-called "contract telecommuters" -- folks who are self-employed or run their own businesses -- the number jumps to nearly 34 million people.

There are more studies now than you can shake a stick at, arguing the pros and cons of telecommuting. Some groups tout its advantages: flexible time, the lack of a commute, as well as less office space, energy and supply issues for employers. But there are others who say working remotely not only cuts workers off from their fellow employees and office culture, but can also create tensions with colleagues back at the office.

A 2008 study from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute suggests in-office workers feel they have "decreased flexibility and a higher workload, and the ensuing greater frustration that comes with coordinating in an environment with more extensive co-worker telework."

The Benefits of Knowing Someone Is Watching

While there has been no definitive study on which is more efficient, at least one analyst suspects time will show the benefits of both venues.

"People are equally efficient at home as at they are at work, but there are different forces that operate," says Kathryn Shaw, professor of economics at the Stanford University Business School, "and I think that's what the data will show in the long run." Shaw says she's uneasy with generalizations on this topic, because efficiency levels can vary greatly depending on the type of job.

More companies, meanwhile, are becoming aware of the need to balance at-home and in-office work for their employees, "but it depends on the firm and it depends on the nature of the work you're doing," says Shaw.

She points to company call centers that successfully have people working from their homes, as well as high-tech workers who can be more creative. "But there are other jobs where you really do want people watching," she says. "There's empirical evidence that watching does influence people, there are definitely peer effects -- when someone's watching, you behave differently." Some firms are also taking measures to ensure their contract employees aren't slacking off at home. At least one company takes screen shots of its remote contract employees as they work throughout the day.

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Given the use of new technologies and the globalization of jobs, working remotely is par for the course at many companies. Teams of workers, located in different offices around the world, can now work together in real time on the same documents and projects. But there are times when face-to-face communication is the most efficient method.

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"You still see people flying all over in international work, because they have to get together," says Shaw, "because there are certain subtle forms of communication that help you do your job [that] occur in person. The downside of distance work is that you lose cultural cues, [compared to] when you're working face-to-face with people."

That combination of working alone, as well as taking part in the relative camaraderie of an office environment, she says, can often strike the balance that modern jobs need.
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