Can ‘Work from Anywhere’ Improve Employee Productivity?

If your organization wants employees to be more productive, then it may want consider letting them decide to work where and when they want.

That’s the upshot of a new study by researchers at Harvard Business School and Northeastern University.

The team looked at employees at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and found that those granted “work from anywhere” arrangements were 4.4 percent more productive than colleagues who worked under a more traditional remote work policy, which gave them schedule flexibility but required them to live near the office.

“While prior academic research has studied productivity effects of ‘working from home’ that gives workers temporal flexibility, ‘work from anywhere’ goes a step further and provides both temporal and geographic flexibility,” Prithwiraj Choudhury, associate professor at Harvard Business School’s technology and operations management unit, tells HBS’ Working Knowledge publication. He co-authored the report, titled (Live and Work) From Anywhere: Geographic Flexibility and Productivity Effects at the United States Patent Office, with HBS doctoral student Cirrus Forughi and Barbara Larson, professor of management at Northeastern University.

In 2012, USPTO implemented its Telework Enhancement Act Pilot Program for its patent-examiner employees as it sought to increase efficiency. The organization’s previous telework policy allowed examiners to work from home so long as they lived within 50 miles of its Alexandria, Va., headquarters. They were also required to report to the office once a week. Under TEAPP, the 50-mile-radius requirement was eliminated along with the weekly check-in to the office.

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Choudhury and his coauthors compared 600 examiners’ productivity under these various conditions. While working remotely, productivity increased among all examiners and continued to rise with each step toward the full work-from-anywhere policy, the researchers found. Productivity increased 4.4 percent when employees moved from working at home on a limited basis to the location of their choice.

Many of the examiners also benefited financially because they were able to move away from the expensive D.C. metropolitan region to less-costly locales or to “retirement-friendly” locations such as Florida, the researchers found.

Not all jobs are as amenable to work-from-anywhere as these USPTO jobs, Choudhury cautions. The nature of a patent examiner’s work requires little in the way of daily coordination with colleagues. It’s work that can be performed independently while adhering to best practices–work that’s been termed “pooled interdependence.” Therefore, the research results apply only to companies or units that employ this type of worker, he says.

“For the vast majority of such employers, remote work is a win-win, because the employee can move to a location of choice and save money in cost of living, and the employer will see higher productivity and lower attrition, and save on real estate costs,” says Choudhury.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.