Health and Wellness

Working from home actually makes you better at some tasks and worse at others—here's what you need to know

@rebekah | Twenty20

As companies around the world are forced to telecommute amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are grappling with the reality of working from home for extended periods of time. 

Everyone seems to have strong feelings about "WFH" life.

And the truth is, it's much more complicated than just laptops and video conferencing. For instance, what does working from home do to your performance, productivity and creativity?

There's research on that, and it suggests that working from home actually makes you better at some tasks, and worse at others. 

For instance, a 2012 study found that people performed "dull" tasks better in a controlled cubicle setting than they did in a less-structured remote environment.

The reason? If you're in a less-structured environment, but you're faced with a boring assignment, ordinary distractions (like walking your dog, doing your laundry or watching TV) seem more interesting, Glenn Dutcher, assistant professor at Ohio University who has studied the effects of telecommuting on creativity and productivity, tells CNBC Make It.

Productivity can also suffer, but not for the reasons you might think. 

When a team works from home, everyone contributes less (even those in the office), simply because they believe they're going to be less productive, Dutcher says. He also sees a sort of "free rider" affect: Nobody wants to be the one person still performing while others try to coast on their hard work.  

On the flip side, the 2012 study also found that when faced with a creative task, people were more productive working from home. Other research suggests that structure kills creativity.

So if you're working from home, there are a few things you can do to optimize your performance.

Remind yourself to talk to the team

While people might excel at creative tasks while working remotely, "the sharing of ideas is extremely important for creativity," Dutcher says.

Since that's harder when working from home, find other ways to stay in constant contact with your team, Dutcher says. For instance, set reminders to send a Slack, email or call at a certain point in the day.

"We just have to sort of make sure that it becomes part of the norm as we start working from home," he says.

Break up your day

"Try and take advantage of the sort of open environment" away from the confines of a cubicle, Dutcher says.

This could be the ideal time to get going on a project or endeavor that you know requires creativity or quiet introspection, Dutcher says.

To further boost creativity, take breaks to go outdoors if can. Not only can it be very important for breaking up your day spent at home, but studies suggest that a walk outside "opens up the free flow of ideas."

Work strategically

You know yourself best, so try to plan your day in a way that makes sense for your working environment, Dutcher says.

For example, if you find you're less distracted by things around the house in the morning, do the work tasks that you find more boring then, he suggests. That way, you'll be less tempted to get off-task. 

Another option: Dutcher says he likes to do his more "boring" responsibilities in the office, and then takes his more interesting work home. While the office might not be an option, you can still find ways to force yourself into a more controlled environment, he says. Perhaps setting up a dedicated work space in your home or switching up where you work throughout the day would help.

Know you'll have feelings about WFH life

Just as the news about COVID-19 changes rapidly, so might your feelings about working remotely. The novelty of telecommuting might "wear off after a while," and you might find that your productivity wanes, Dutcher says. 

"The key is to recognize that," he says. It's also a good idea to prepare — tips like going for a walk work here too. Or make adjustments like turning off all social media to help you focus. 

Learn from the experience

Dutcher says this may be a great opportunity for employees and employers alike to experiment with telecommuting. "For the employees who have wanted to prove to their supervisors that they could effectively telecommuter, here is the chance to do so," he says.

Likewise, employers who have considered this in the past, can embrace this challenge and see how it works for their set of employees. "If it doesn't work as planned, then they can always go back," he says. "But if some of it does go well, then they now have another tool to increase productivity."

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