How Socioeconomic Status Can Affect the Productivity of Remote Workers

September 14, 2022

Terrance Boyd headshot

               Terrance Boyd

Michael Johnson headshot

              Michael Johnson

Companies’ “work from home” policies may be driving economic inequality. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 70% of full-time office workers left their offices behind to work from home. While, at first, this was a temporary response to ensure workers’ safety and to comply with government mandates, many businesses realized the remote arrangement could result in substantial gains in work productivity.

LSU Rucks Department of Management Assistant Professor Michael Johnson, PhD student Terrance Boyd, and co-authors discovered in a recent paper that while overall work performance was on the rise, the newfound surge in productivity wasn’t evenly distributed throughout the workforce. The researchers report their findings in “A Tale of Two Offices: The Socioeconomic Environment’s Effect on Job Performance While Working from Home,” published by Group and Organization Management. With the sociocognitive theory of socioeconomic status (SES) in mind, the authors predicted that one’s home working environment features SES cues that can affect performance.
During the summer of 2020, the authors surveyed 304 remote workers from across the nation. They found that individuals whose home office connotes higher levels of SES report a greater sense of control over their environment and, ultimately, higher levels of job performance. On one level, they evaluated holistic information, looking at a person’s “environmental artifacts.” They also discovered that how well a space is equipped (ex: desk, chair, internet speed) can affect performance. Most surprisingly, the authors found a subjective décor-based mechanism also impacted productivity. It was observed that simple things like the quality of color on the walls, paintings, and lighting could impact productivity because the right combinations of these factors made people feel more comfortable in their own space.
The idea that a dedicated, ergonomically correct, aesthetically pleasing workspace bolsters productivity goes along with the concept that your environment can shape how you think, feel, and act. The authors found that a dedicated workspace versus a kitchen table gives you the freedom to choose when you want to work. For example, if you randomly get inspired, you can pop into your office and solve that work problem. But if your workspace is in the living room shared with your children doing homework, it limits your freedom. Essentially, having freedom and a sense of control is a powerful factor in how you approach your work.

"Even if people fall into a high social class and have the means for unlimited resources, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they put those resources towards building a comfortable home office, especially early in the pandemic. I remember working in a closet as a temporary solution when we thought things would quickly turn around."

Michael Johnson, Rucks Department of Management Assistant Professor

Despite the many advantages of working from home, SES disparities among home office setups perpetuate the long-term effects of differences in performance and productivity since home working environments can be arrayed along an SES gradient. In contrast, a central office serves as an equalizer for productivity since the company pays for the space and provides everyone with comparable environments to work (ex: desk, equipment, décor, lighting, internet), creating a sense of homogeneity.  

Overall, the authors believe remote work can be a sustainable long-term option for some companies, as SES disparity is only one element in the conversation. There’s a true cost savings in remote work from a company standpoint, as well as a retention and attraction tool. Even though there are productivity gains from remote work due to fewer workplace interruptions, companies still struggle with balancing allowing workers to work from home or go into an office.

Based on the authors’ research findings, companies could tackle SES disparities by using the cost savings from remote work to help these employees minimize some of their economic differences. By sharing evidence-based resources, giving employees directions on things like the type of lighting to use and how to ergonomically set up their home offices, and providing a potential stipend for office equipment, companies could potentially see remote work productivity rise with a more even distribution throughout the workforce.

read the full study.

Group & Organization Management

Group & Organization Management is dedicated to publishing theoretically grounded research that addresses a wide range of issues within organizations. From individual behavior to organizational strategy and functioning, GOM features both empirical and theoretical articles spanning various levels of analysis in organizations. GOM’s conceptual and empirical focus gives scholars, educators, and practitioners the tools to help them solve the most challenging problems in today’s organizations.