Companies’ “work from home” policies may be driving economic inequality. At the height
of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 70% of full-time office workers left their offices
behind to work from home. While, at first, this was a temporary response to ensure
workers’ safety and to comply with government mandates, many businesses realized the
remote arrangement could result in substantial gains in work productivity.
LSU Rucks Department of Management Assistant Professor Michael Johnson, PhD student Terrance Boyd, and co-authors discovered
in a recent paper that while overall work performance was on the rise, the newfound
surge in productivity wasn’t evenly distributed throughout the workforce. The researchers
report their findings in “A Tale of Two Offices: The Socioeconomic Environment’s Effect
on Job Performance While Working from Home,” published by Group and Organization Management.
With the sociocognitive theory of socioeconomic status (SES) in mind, the authors
predicted that one’s home working environment features SES cues that can affect performance.
During the summer of 2020, the authors surveyed 304 remote workers from across the
nation. They found that individuals whose home office connotes higher levels of SES
report a greater sense of control over their environment and, ultimately, higher levels
of job performance. On one level, they evaluated holistic information, looking at
a person’s “environmental artifacts.” They also discovered that how well a space is
equipped (ex: desk, chair, internet speed) can affect performance. Most surprisingly,
the authors found a subjective décor-based mechanism also impacted productivity. It
was observed that simple things like the quality of color on the walls, paintings,
and lighting could impact productivity because the right combinations of these factors
made people feel more comfortable in their own space.
The idea that a dedicated, ergonomically correct, aesthetically pleasing workspace
bolsters productivity goes along with the concept that your environment can shape
how you think, feel, and act. The authors found that a dedicated workspace versus
a kitchen table gives you the freedom to choose when you want to work. For example,
if you randomly get inspired, you can pop into your office and solve that work problem.
But if your workspace is in the living room shared with your children doing homework,
it limits your freedom. Essentially, having freedom and a sense of control is a powerful
factor in how you approach your work.
“Even if people fall into a high social class and have the means for unlimited resources,
it doesn’t necessarily mean that they put those resources towards building a comfortable
home office, especially early in the pandemic. I remember working in a closet as a
temporary solution when we thought things would quickly turn around.”
Michael Johnson, Rucks Department of Management Assistant Professor
Despite the many advantages of working from home, SES disparities among home office
setups perpetuate the long-term effects of differences in performance and productivity
since home working environments can be arrayed along an SES gradient. In contrast,
a central office serves as an equalizer for productivity since the company pays for
the space and provides everyone with comparable environments to work (ex: desk, equipment,
décor, lighting, internet), creating a sense of homogeneity.
Overall, the authors believe remote work can be a sustainable long-term option for
some companies, as SES disparity is only one element in the conversation. There’s
a true cost savings in remote work from a company standpoint, as well as a retention
and attraction …….