Working At Home: Does It Impact Developer Productivity?
Wednesday, 26 August 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that developers who normally work in an office environment had to switch to working from home. What can be learned from the "natural experiment" forced on us by unanticipated events? What are seen as the benefits and challenges of working from home and how do they impact productivity?

The paper A Tale of Two Cities: Software Developers Working from Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic was submitted to by Microsoft Senior Principal Researcher Thomas Zimmermann. The paper reports the experiences of Microsoft employees (developers and program managers) working from home during the pandemic based on two surveys and has findings that will be useful as working from home (WFH) becomes the new normal.

In response to Microsoft instructing its headquarters-based employees that all who could do so should work from home, Zimmermann and other researchers, eight of whom are co-authors of the paper designed, an initial survey that was sent in mid-March to to 5,000 full time employees (3,500 developers, 1,500 program managers) who had been working from home for around 2 weeks. They survey included questions about the benefits and challenges of working from home and:

“Compared to working in office, how has your productivity changed?”

There were 1,369 responses to this survey, a response rate of 27% and it was used to compile two lists - benefits and challenges respectively. These were used to construct a second survey which was sent to 9,000 full-time Microsoft employees throughout the United States in late April/early May after 94% of the US population were under stay at home orders. This time there were 2,265 responses, a response rate of 25%.

Fifteen benefits were identified for working from home and they are listed in order of prevalence - 96% for "Less time on commute" down to 34% for "More physical activity". 


In terms of importance (the proportion of the darkest colored bar to the two lighter ones), it was "Better work life balance" that came top, considered very important by 95% of the 50% who experienced this benefit.  "Better focus time" was very important to 93% of the 62% who reported it making it the second most important benefit.  "Less time on commute", the most prevelant benefit, was also fairly high in terms of impantance at 82%

"Missing social interactions" came top of twenty factors in terms of prevalence  (83%) for the Challenges of WFH and it was also high (49%) in terms of impact, that is a factor being a major issue  With regard to impact, "Lack of Childcare" emerged top (58%), but was only experienced by 27% of respondents. 


"Poor ergonomics" was reported by 70% of whom 52% rated it as a major issue, however "Connectivity problems" only affected 51% and only 35% of them saw it as a major concern.

Looking at self reported productivity, the surveys suggests that, overall, productivity was unaffected by WFH.


This result was largely borne out by an exercise based on mining software data collected through the engineering systems, specifically pull request counts which indicated the pandemic had:

not significantly influenced productivity at the company level.

Looking at the relation between benefits and challenges and productivity, the researchers report:

All benefits had a positive delta on productivity change. This means that respondents who experienced a benefit, on average also reported being more productive when working from home.

The benefits exercising the most influence were: "Better focus time";  "Better work environment" and "Less distractions or interruptions".

Similarly, all of the challenges were associated with lower productivity. and those with largest reduction in productivity were: "More distractions and interruptions"; "Lack of motivation"; "Poor home work environment"; "Less time to complete work"; "Difficulty communicating with colleagues" and "Lack of a routine".

One thing that stands out here is that factors that were mentioned as a benefit by some, were reported as a challenge by others. For example, change is work life balance was reported as benefit by half the survey respondents and a challenge for the other half. 

The paper reports:

We even found that some factors (such as ability to focus, home work environment) that when they were reported as a challenge, were associated with statistically significant lower levels of productivity, while if the same factor was reported as a benefit, they were associated with statistically significant higher levels of productivity.

So, overall if you like working from home, doing so will probably make you more productive, but if you like going away from home and enjoy face-to-face interaction with colleagues, you've probably be less productive. And it seems the split between the two camps is pretty evenly balanced.


More Information

A Tale of Two Cities: Software Developers Working from Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Denae Ford, Margaret-Anne Storey, Thomas Zimmermann, Christian Bird, Sonia Jaffe, Chandra Maddila, Jenna L. Butler, Brian Houck, Nachiappan Nagappan

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 16 June 2021 )