Working in the digital economy: a scoping review of the impact of work from home arrangements on personal and organizational performance and productivity

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About the project

Although working from home (WFH) has been a growing trend since the 1970s, it has recently become a necessary measure to mitigate potential transmission of the COVID-19 pandemic. The way we work suddenly and drastically changed, and in some sectors remote work arrangements may become the new norm. It is well documented that WFH has been associated with several physical and mental health outcomes; however, to the best of our knowledge, there is no study that has comprehensively reviewed the literature on the impacts that WFH arrangements have on organizational and personal performance and productivity. Traditionally, from a business and managerial perspective, organizational and individual worker performance and productivity are powerful agendas that receive more resources and attention than is traditionally bestowed on health and safety issues. Therefore, aligning WFH with the business goals of organizations may help catalyze awareness from decision-makers and support the effective implementation of WFH policies.

This scoping review synthesized current knowledge on the impact of WFH arrangements on personal and organizational performance and productivity in the past 10 years, and has important implications for organizations as they continue to address the sudden changes to work arrangements. Even when working life begins to return to “normal” in the future, some form of WFH arrangement is likely to stay, and organizations will need to be prepared to accommodate these arrangements, and be equipped with resources necessary to determine how WFH can work for them.

Key findings

Our scoping review identified 37 relevant articles that directly focused on the impact WFH has on personal and organizational productivity and performance. The project revealed that current literature: (1) concentrates more on productivity than performance, (2) utilizes observational studies and survey-based designs rather than experimental studies, and (3) has a greater emphasis on the effects at a personal level, compared to organizational-level impacts:

  • 73% of articles investigated productivity, while only 43% measured performance;
  • 62% of studies used a survey-based design, 22% focused on interviews, and 16% implemented experimental designs;
  • 62% of articles were interested in personal productivity/performance, 11% focused on organizational productivity/performance and 24% examined both personal and organizational levels of impact.

This disparity highlights the need for future research to consider all levels, as the interplay between personal and organizational levels may conflict with one another. This is particularly important as organizations work to develop and evaluate WFH policies.

It should be noted that, regardless of study design, there was no commonality with respect to the combination of metrics used to comprehensively measure productivity/performance (i.e., job satisfaction, turnover, cost savings, work intensification or work-life balance). The lack of consistency will make it difficult for organizations to infer conclusive results as to the impacts of WFH, and highlights the need for organizational policies to define what productivity and performance means to them, and what measurements are best suited to reflect these impacts.

The review also identified a subset of articles specifically focused on WFH during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, productivity/performance appear to be impacted differently in WFH situations that are mandatory and full time, and where external factors may be at play:

  • 65% of articles were conducted prior to the pandemic, whereas 35% examined WFH impacts during COVID-19;
  • 79% of prepandemic studies reported improved personal or organizational productivity/performance, whereas only 23% of COVID-19-specific articles reported positive impacts.

Future work in this area must consider the external factors leading to WFH arrangements in both the design and analysis of the research study. Longitudinal studies may be beneficial to evaluate the importance of time as a factor in understanding the true impact of WFH in situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations will need to consider the individual and environmental situation surrounding their WFH program, and recognize that new ways of working may take time for adaptation.

Policy implications

WFH is not a one-size-fits-all arrangement, and its impacts can vary depending on the organization, job, individual and type of arrangement. Although benefits of WFH are best realized with a balance between WFH and in-office work, it is important to recognize that the balance may differ between organizations/teams, or that a balance may not always be feasible. When developing, implementing and evaluating a WFH program, organizations should:

  • define what performance/productivity means to the organization and how it will be measured:
    • ensure that a breadth of metrics and both levels of impact (personal and organizational) are used to evaluate program effectiveness to avoid inferring causality where it does not exist;
  • create several types of WFH programs that meet different needs:
    • consider that some tasks are better suited for WFH than others (e.g., low teamwork, little in-person facetime requirements or easily quantifiable tasks are ideal for WFH);
  • recognize that successful WFH programs may require an organizational culture shift:
    • implement training for employees/managers to ensure WFH is viewed as a work-design initiative or standard operating procedure rather than a work-family benefit;
    • utilize worker-centric approaches to address unique needs of employees.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Amin Yazdani, director, Canadian Institute for Safety, Wellness, and Performance, School of Business, Conestoga College:

Marcus Yung, senior research manager, Canadian Institute for Safety, Wellness, and Performance, School of Business, Conestoga College:

Amy Hackney, researcher, Conestoga College:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, the Future Skills Centre or the Government of Canada.

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