Article: Thursday, 29 October 2020
Is working from home a bad move for people doing complicated tasks and detailed thinking? It might have adverse effects on doing cognitive tasks, according to research using chess players from Dr Dainis Zegners of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). Dr Zegners and his co-researchers from Maastricht University Dr Steffen Künn and Dr Christian Seel measured the effect of working at home using world-class professional chess players taking part in an online tournament from their homes. Their results give food for thought for managers and their teams who are still adjusting to the new normal of much more long-term working from home.
While the pandemic has led to a steep increase in the amount of work that is conducted from home, this increase is arguably part of a broader trend towards more flexible work arrangements that allow workers more freedom to choose their place of work. Therefore, the question of how working from home affects the productivity of workers is very important for firms and workers alike. From our personal experience working as researchers and teachers at the university and having had to switch to conduct these tasks from our homes, we realized how challenging it can be to remain concentrated when working from home, even if we are not disturbed by our spouses or kids.
A challenge when trying to measure how productive workers are in the office compared to at home is that often you do not observe the same workers working from home and in the office. Also, often the type of task changes when somebody works from home. It can also be challenging to measure actual productivity and not some proxy such as number of hours worked or number of tasks completed. We came up with the idea to exploit a unique setting that allows us to solve these challenges. During the pandemic, all professional face-to-face chess tournaments were canceled but instead new tournaments were organized and held online.
For the chess players the task remains qualitatively the same, i.e. finding the best chess move in a limited amount of time. Only the environment changes; from face-to-face tournaments to online. By observing the same chess players playing in offline tournaments and online during the pandemic, we were able to compare their moves. By using modern chess computers, so-called chess engines, we can compare the move played by the human to the best possible move for any given position. In the end, we analyzed 27,267 individual moves played during 441 games that were either played offline in face-to-face chess tournaments or online from the chess players' homes.
We found that the elite chess players still performed very well when playing from their homes, and overall did not make more errors when playing from home. However, in case they did make an error, the size of the error increased considerably when they played online from their homes, by about 17 percent in terms of the error size.
Chess is in many ways similar to the work of the knowledge society's office workplaces: the game is strategic, analytical and takes place under time pressure. Cognitive skills used in chess are also used for complicated tasks such as drafting a legal contract or preparing a tender document – the kind of tasks that require clear and precise thinking.
For these kinds of tasks, our results imply that while workers might be able to conduct them on a sufficient level from home, there will be a drop in the productivity that can be sizeable. It is also important to note that most of the chess players that we studied are wealthy male players in their 20s without child-rearing responsibilities. We therefore think it is unlikely that our results are explained by a noisy environment with distractions when they compete from home. Although we cannot answer this question with our data, several of the participating chess players have commented that they lacked the experience of the competitive atmosphere of a chess tournament where they sit across their opponent. So even though the chess players competed for significant prize money in the online tournaments and therefore should have a high motivation to play their best chess, there is something about the lack of a competitive atmosphere when playing from their homes that decreases their performance. Carried-over to a firm and workplace setting, this suggests that even if workers are properly motivated and are not distracted when working from home, it is difficult to recreate the experience of working in an office in a competitive atmosphere that leads to a decrease in workers productivity when conducting cognitively demanding tasks under time pressure.
While it has been estimated that during the COVID pandemic about half of workers switched to working from home, other research suggests that about 40 percent of jobs could be performed just as well from home. With the ongoing digitization, the question for our society is how this will impact the productivity of our economy. While there are many benefits to move more jobs to the home office, as this allows for greater flexibility that can improve work-life balance while decreasing commuting costs and costs of providing office space, our research highlights that there can also be a drawback to moving jobs that require a high degree of concentration to the home-office.
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