Home working may be more than just a short term fix

11 Mar 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 11 Mar 2020

Pic: Unsplash

Scope’s Nick Garbutt has worked from home for close to a decade. Here’s his advice for those facing the prospect as Covid-19 starts to grip.

Before too long all of us who can work from home will be doing precisely that as employers attempt to minimise the risk of the virus spreading. But does that mean a drop in productivity? Absolutely not. It should mean the opposite.

Here are three important benefits:

Fewer meetings

I once had a boss who hated meetings so much that he used a stopwatch to time them. He started every meeting at precisely the advertised time, banned all chit chat and insisted that everyone spoke briefly and directly to all the agenda items.

When the minutes were distributed he included a line on the cost of the meeting which was based on salaries calculated by the hour to include any travel time where relevant.

As a consequence meetings were only held when they had to be and were as brief as possible. Nobody was late.

This, of course, is rare. Many workers have to sit through hours of meetings every week, often involving considerable travel. Whilst some are important most are of questionable value. Those that could not be held via teleconference are few and far between.

Unnecessary meetings with unfocused agendas which don’t start on time where the first (unwritten) item is banter are a drain on productivity which costs organisation time and money.

Less distraction

The pace of work in most offices, especially open plan offices, is dictated by the most irritating, distracting and least motivated members of the team.

That’s fine if you’ve very little to do, but if you are trying to concentrate and or working to a deadline it’s a very poor environment for getting things done.

Amusingly recent American research has identified managers as those most likely to cause distractions, spending an average of 70 minutes per day talking about non-work topics whilst at work.

Cut travel time

Commuting time takes up a significant portion of our working day. The same American survey estimated that workers saved the equivalent of 17 days per year (based on a half hour commute) when they worked from home as opposed to a traditional office.

In fact the daily commute is one of the prime sources of discontent for workers. It’s not just the time it takes, but the cost of it whether that be via public transport or car and it causes pollution as well.

From an employer’s perspective reducing the number of staff in the premises every day means that desk space is reduced allowing them to use smaller offices paying smaller rents and rates.


What the experts say

In 2017 China’s largest travel agency Ctrip approached academics at Stanford University with a challenge. They are based in Shanghai and have 20,000 employees. The company was facing soaring office costs and wanted to know how much productivity would drop by if staff worked from home.

What followed was a two year study led by Professor Nicholas Bloom.

“We found massive, massive improvement in performance — a 13% improvement in performance from people working at home,” Bloom reported.

Also, his study found that resignations at the company dropped by 50% when employees were allowed to work from home. “Not only do the employees benefit (by working from home), but the managers benefit because they can spend less of their time painfully advertising, recruiting, training, and promoting.”

The company reported that profits rose by $2,000 per employee working from home (a combination of increased productivity and reduced office space)

Bloom now argues that the traditional office is a construct of the Industrial Revolution which should no longer be the norm.

Some advice

Utilise the extra time you get. Get up at the same time you normally would and get straight to work. There is a clear motivation for this. Because once you have finished your work tasks for the day, you are free. For most people this will save them at least an hour a day. An hour’s extra free time to to what you like.

Take a proper break. Without the distractions of the office and unnecessary meetings you will be much more productive. You will be amazed how much you can do in a much shorter space of time than when in the office. That means a lunch break can be a proper break, rather than a sandwich over the keyboard. Make sure you take the full hour and go for a walk. Having a proper break will make you more productive when you return to your desk after lunch.

There’s a difference between home working and house work.  Working from home does not mean you should grab the hoover or attack the dishes in the sink. This is not why you are at home. So don’t even think about house work. That can be tackled after you have finished your shift – and you’ll have much more time than you ever had before to do it.

Separate you work from the rest of your life. If at all possible work in a separate room from where you relax. Resist overlaps between work and leisure. When you are done for the day switch off your laptop and walk away from it all.

Distractions creep up on you. It can be disconcerting to swap the office bore and office chatter for silence.  This can make people uneasy at first and the temptation is to distract yourself surfing around and dropping in on social media. When you find this happening take a quick break and then get back down to the work. Set aside a few minutes both in the morning and the afternoon for that sort of thing and stick to it. Working hard means finishing early and that gives you guilt-free online time.

Feelings of Loneliness from time to time is inevitable for home workers. But we do have more time for, and appreciate other people more than commuters.



There isn’t an upside to coronavirus, but one positive impact might be the growth of home working. Employers may be pleasantly surprised to discover that productivity goes up rather than down, when and if people are told to work at home.

It may lead to permanent change, which would be good for productivity and for the environment. But permanent home working is probably not the way to go for most organisations. There needs to be face-to-face contact to build teams and also to foster creativity.

Many progressive employers are looking at flexible systems rather than pure home working, which would see their staff in an office one or two days during the working week.

Best of all we could see the slow and welcome death of the pointless meeting. Sooner or later we may also discover how we could find managers more productive things to do than boring their staff with small talk for more than an hour every day.




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