The reason, of course, is the coronavirus. Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Twitter are doing their part to try to slow or stop its spread, especially in certain higher-risk cities.
Obviously, a viral crisis like this is a tragedy. But one small positive side-effect is that we should soon have a giant trove of data on the effectiveness of working from home.
First, the details on the big tech companies and their work-from-home dictates, then the research-related background:
- At Amazon, "all employees based in Seattle/Bellevue who work in a role that can be done from home, [should] do so through the end of March," according to a memo obtained by Geekwire.
- Similarly, Google is asking its 4,500 employees in Seattle to consider working remotely, and also to avoid bringing outside guests to the office.
- Apple asked its Silicon Valley employees on Friday to work from home as a "precaution," according to Reuters.
- Microsoft asked its employees in Seattle and San Francisco to work from home until March 25, according to an internal email obtained by Business Insider.
- Twitter asked its entire worldwide workforce of 5,000 people to work from home, and made the move mandatory for employees in places with higher rates of coronavirus diagnoses, like Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea.
Again, nobody is happy about the coronavirus outbreak. But since it's happening and big tech companies are reacting, the whole thing could amount to a silver lining for researchers.
For example, in 2017, I wrote about a Stanford economics professor named Nicholas Bloom who wanted to study whether people who work from home are more or less productive than those who work in an office.
His big threshold problem at the time was simply a lack of willing subjects--a test pool, if you will. Absent some big, external factor, how do you convince a company to move part of its workforce to work-from-home so you can study the impact?
Bloom found his solution in a Chinese travel agency called CTrip, which was owned by one of his graduate students, James Liang.
Liang recruited 500 of his company's call-center employees for the experiment. Half worked from home for six months, while the other half came into the office. In the end, the work-from-home cohort was 13.5 percent more efficient and 9 percent more engaged than their colleagues in the office.
The study was fascinating, but business leaders like you might well wonder whether how much its results depended on the specific job description.
In other words, lots of call centers offer work-from-home positions. It's a job where most of the work is performed on an individual contributor level.
But how would a similar policy affect people in other kinds of jobs?
- If your employees have to collaborate, have we reached the point where virtual tools can truly take the place of face-to-face contact?
- Will their work suffer from a lack of informal interaction?
- And will employees whose performance is important but less quantifiable on a granular level resist non-work distractions?
We're not just talking about employees goofing off. Some very dedicated employees might find themselves distracted by family or other non-work commitments--things they might otherwise have put off until later.
It's hard to know. And since once you've started letting employees work from home, it's hard to take that perk away, almost any business leader who wants to recruit the best people has to be concerned.
Now, thanks to Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Twitter, some other workplace researchers--heck, maybe Bloom and Liang, for that matter--will likely have a lot more data to work with.