WFH: The Studies Are In

For those working from home, new research finds increases in productivity, but mixed results for health and career.

The debate over working from home—a divisive issue in the UK—may never end. And a series of new studies will only fuel that debate. 

It turns out that working from home can make employees more efficient, and, in most cases, healthier, according to a review conducted by multiple UK universities and the UK-based National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Researchers sifted through 1,930 academic studies and analyzed the results of WFH and other non-traditional work arrangements. “These are the benefits of giving people more control over their environment,” says Drew Hill, a senior client partner for Korn Ferry based in the London office. “I am not surprised by these results.”

One study found that 59% of those working from home were more productive. That seems to be a notable improvement, given the lack of productivity growth in the British economy over much of the last decade. Key to those improvements is that WFH, by allowing for uninterrupted focus, makes employees more productive, says Simon Vaughan-Edwards, a London-based Korn Ferry senior client partner for defence government and national security. “If you only sometimes work remotely, then you use those days for report writing and work that requires focus.”

In another study, almost half (45%) of respondents also said that working remotely improved their health and well-being. Other studies showed that WFH allowed workers the time to schedule exercise and the freedom to eat a healthier diet of vegetables, fruit, and home-cooked food. But in a key result, as many as 47% of employees gained weight while working remotely. Researchers pointed to their sedentary lifestyles as the cause. Weight gain wasn’t the only downside of working away from the office.

Some research has found that as many as four in 10 British workers think their chances of promotion within a company would be hindered by working remotely. But when so few people are in the office in the first place, how do human resources executives decide who to shortlist for a promotion? “The implications aren’t clear yet for career advancement and succession,” says John Atherton, a senior client partner for Korn Ferry based in the London office. 

Atherton is worried about WFH's longer-term impact. For instance, he asks, “What is the cost of a company not building its culture or integrating junior staff into how things are done at a specific employer?” It's a good question, given that corporate culture has historically been created, transmitted, and absorbed by employees who are working together in an office or other formally designated workspace.

For now, WFH looks much the same across countries in the West, Atherton says, with collaboration via such platforms as Zoom, Teams, and Google Docs. Many of those changes may stay, he says. Still, he suspects businesses may suffer over the longer term. “There are pros and cons. And I don't think they will favor business,” he says.


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