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Research Brief of Shao et al.’s (2021) Making Daily Decisions to Work From Home or to Work in the Office

Jeff Conway, Maria Kraimer, & Lauren Moran

The authors of the study examined decisions to work from home (vs. the office) in a sample of 127 information technology (IT) professionals in China. The study employs a longitudinal daily diary methodology covering the course of a single work week (i.e., 5 days). Through a review of the work stress literature and a qualitative pilot study, the authors first identified five types of stressors the pandemic has created for workers while working at home or the office: work–family boundary, technology, work coordination, workload, and COVID-19 infection-related stressors. Their hypothesized model (see Appendix) proposes the direct effects of the four aforementioned stressors and multiple moderating effects stemming from COVID-19 infection-related stressors on subsequent work location decisions (e.g., if this stressor happens today, how does that influence where I work tomorrow?). The majority, but not all, of the hypotheses were supported using multilevel modeling (five daily surveys nested within people).

The key findings of the study are
1. Employees are more likely to work in the office on the next day when experiencing interferences from family (work–family boundary stress) or difficulties coordinating with work colleagues (work coordination stress) the previous day, regardless of current concerns for COVID-19 infections.
2. Employees were also more likely to work in the office the next day when they experienced technology-related difficulties the previous day and they were not currently concerned about COVID-19 infections.
3. Conversely, employees were more likely to work at home if they experienced excessive workload the previous day and were currently concerned about high levels of COVID-19 infections. Workload stressors include having an increased workload due to coworkers being off site and demands to participate in unexpected meetings.

Practical Implications

The study’s findings highlight that organizations should make efforts to reduce the four types of stressors and help employees navigate those stressor points so that they are more productive, whether working at home or the office. For example, organizations can help employees with technology difficulties while working from home by providing “help lines” for employees to call. They can help minimize coordination stress by encouraging all employees to communicate with each other in advance about which days they are working from home versus the office. For companies that want to encourage employees to work in the office, they should prioritize the reduction of workload stressors while at the office by ensuring that on-site employees don’t have to “pick up the slack” for employees not on site that day. Further, a supplemental analysis conducted by the authors revealed that working in the office on a certain day was helpful in preventing or reducing further exposure to stressors (e.g., interference with family; technology-related difficulties) that same day, whereas working from home had no effects in terms of preventing the occurrence of any stressor. This provided initial evidence that working in the office (vs. home) may be more beneficial to employees during and/or beyond COVID-19 where people enter “flexible” work arrangements with little preparation.

Limitations to Consider

Like all studies, this study has limitations. One limitation being generalizability to jobs where the option to work from home does not exist (e.g., most blue-collar jobs). A second limitation may be questions about whether the findings generalize to other samples; however, as far as we can tell, there is not much reason to think the results from this study would be different outside of China or outside of information technology workers. A final limitation, which could also be a future research direction, is whether the findings apply to employees whose location schedule varies weekly or monthly, rather than daily (e.g., an employee who works from home every Monday and Friday regardless of stressors encountered). Although this study took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, understanding how these stressors motivate employees to work from home or the office is important for organizations that continue to offer flexible work arrangements. Although the COVID-related stressors, in particular, may someday become irrelevant, the finding highlights that disruptive events occurring in society need to be considered when helping employees manage their work–nonwork interface.

For more details, please read the full article:
Shao, Y., Fang, Y., Wang, M., Chang, C. H. D., & Wang, L. (2021). Making daily decisions to work from home or to work in the office: The impacts of daily work and COVID-related stressors on next-day work location. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(6), 825. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000929

Jeff Conway, Maria Kraimer, and Lauren Moran were members of the 2022–2023 Scientific Affairs Committee.


Figure 1 from original article (Shao et al., 2021)

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