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IWER Newsletter: Women and Work

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Human Resources

When Working From Home Benefits Employees—and When It Doesn’t

Is working from home good for employees? New research finds that the answer depends on the circumstancesand in particular, whether at-home work is replacing time in the office or adding to it.

In an article published online by the journal ILR Review, researchers Duanyi Yang, Erin L. Kelly, Laura D. Kubzansky, and Lisa Berkman analyzed survey data from 7857 German workers in private-sector organizations to study the effects of working from home on employee well-being; the surveys were conducted in 2014 and 2016, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yang, who earned her doctorate in the Institute for Work and Employment Research PhD program at MIT Sloan, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. Kelly is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Co-Director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research (IWER). Kubzansky is a Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Director of the Society and Health Laboratory at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, and Berkman is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and of Epidemiology in the Harvard T.H. Chan School.

The authors found that doing some work from home during regular business hoursin other words, working at home in lieu of commuting to an officewas linked to employees having greater job satisfaction and higher levels of well-being, but also with somewhat greater conflict between work and family life than strictly in-office jobs. The researchers call this kind of work from home “replacement work-from-home.”

In contrast, work that is done during off-hours at home in addition to work already performed at a company sitesomething the authors call “extension work-from-home”was associated with largely negative effects for employees, especially women. Extending the workweek by spending additional time doing job tasks at home was linked to employees having lower levels of well-being, greater conflicts between work and family roles, and a greater likelihood of thinking of leaving their jobs. The negative effects on well-being were particularly pronounced for female employees, with women who do “extension work-from-home” having a significantly higher probability of experiencing poor mental health than women who did no work from the office at home. The researchers found that both types of working from home were associated with workers having a higher level of engagement with their jobs than employees who worked only at a company site.

“Women are particularly affected by work-from-home that extends into personal time because they are more likely to have greater caregiving responsibilities, on average, and because there are clear cultural messages that moms and wives are supposed to be focused on their families during family time,” observed Kelly. “When a work call interrupts family time or when women read emails while watching a show with a child or spouse, they may feel guilty or stressed because those blurred boundaries violate our cultural expectations for women.”

“The findings from our study are clear: These two types of work-from-home have different implications,” Kelly explained. “Replacement work-from-home that is bounded to regular work hours is good for workers and good for their work organizations, too. Extension work-from-home that involves more blurred boundaries doesn’t bring the same benefits and actually encourages people to think more about finding a new job, which means that their employers are more likely to have to deal with turnover.” --Reported by Martha E. Mangelsdorf