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Companies are feeling the pressure to use telework opportunities to satisfy employees. But how does working from home affect our productivity, creativity and stress levels? 

“Flexible work arrangements are popular, but can often lead to higher stress,” warns Ryan Vogel, assistant professor in the Fox School’s Department of Human Resources Management. Vogel conducted a survey of over 500 U.S.-based employees of a multinational software corporation. He asked each employee to respond to a short questionnaire four times a day for three weeks, seeking to understand how their creativity, engagement and stress varies throughout the day and in different working environments. 

There were no differences in either the employees’ investment in their work and degree of creativity when working from home, at the office or in a combination of the two settings. However, Vogel says, “We found significantly higher levels of stress and lower levels of positive emotion when employees worked at home.” 

Why would employees feel more stress when working at home? “There could be several factors,” says Vogel. “But our research suggested the strongest factor was the fact that people are more psychologically attached to home when they are at home.” For example, many employees who are teleworking may find themselves distracted from their work to-do lists by their personal tasks. Imagine trying to work next to a giant pile of laundry—for some, that is hard to ignore. 

Unsurprisingly, the same was true for those who brought their work with them, mentally or physically, after leaving the office. Employees who emphasized time in the evening to recover from work and engage with their families reported lower stress levels than those who did not. 

“With flexible working environments, it’s important that employees can create mental distance between home and work,” says Vogel. “With the increased flexibility in how and where we work, we need to be conscious of creating some form of mental separation between the personal and the professional, so that employees can focus on each one when it’s appropriate.” 

Vogel also advocates for an occasional change of scenery. “When employees switched work locations from one day to the next between their home or the office, we saw significant boosts in their level of engagement and lower levels of stress,” he says. 

This study supports the notion that working at home versus in the office does not impact an employee’s ability to be creative and engaged in their work, but it does suggest that employers and companies should exercise telework options mindfully. 

“Flexibility to work remotely is an important benefit that fulfills employees’ need for autonomy,” says Vogel. “However, these findings bring a level of nuance to the conversation.”

Reducing Stress at Work

Whether employees have flexible hours or are “always on,” how can companies help reduce stress levels? Vogel suggests ways that leaders can encourage employees to put aside stress-inducing distractions, regardless of their work environment: 

  1. Make lists at the end of a day to let go of stressors overnight.
  2. Model “protected time” so employees do not feel pressured during non-work hours.
  3. Start meetings by setting an intention to be fully present and encouraging mindfulness

Learn more about Fox School Research.

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