How Working From Home Changed Us After March's stay-at-home orders took effect, usc researchers studied the impact of widespread work from home on well-being and productivity.

In the spring of 2020, a mass migration from office work to working from home occurred as a result of the global pandemic. In response, USC researchers issued a survey about the impact of working from home to a random sample of working-aged individuals in the U.S.

The researchers included: Burcin Becerik-Gerber, Dean's Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Gale Lucas, research assistant professor at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies and Shawn Roll, associate professor in the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Together, they analyzed responses from nearly 1,000 respondents detailing everything from physical and mental health impacts to how different workspace setups impacted productivity. Below are some of their findings.

Becerik-Gerber and Lucas, co-founders of CENTIENTS, shared key findings from the survey as part of an 11-part Viterbi Lecture series on November 19th.

Slide of survey data regarding work from home situations for respondents. Image from CENTIENTS.

Respondents shared that they spend on average 1.5 hours more at their workstations while working from home, compared to similar work performed in a formal office setting.

"Healthcare and social services" employees spent significantly more time (over one hour) at their workstations than those in the "engineering, architecture" and "business and office" categories.

Both physical and mental health were positively correlated with productivity.

Respondents also reported increased food intake and reduced physical activity in the survey.

Indoor environmental quality (IEQ) refers to various elements such as temperature, ergonomics, air quality, lighting and more. The researchers found that head, eye and digestive pain and fatigue are the most predicted physical issues by IEQ. Shoulder pain is most predicted musculoskeletal issue with regard to IEQ factors.

Recently published research — authored by Becerik-Gerber, Lucas, Roll and Ashrant Aryal, USC Viterbi Ph.D. '20, now assistant professor at Texas A&M — further explores how building environments can be customized to personal comfort preferences. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems account for 43% of building energy consumption, yet only 38% of commercial building occupants are satisfied with the thermal environment. Personal comfort systems (PCS) enable local control of the thermal environment around each occupant.

Workers with teenagers at home were more productive than those who did not have teenagers at home.

Living with at least one teenager lowered the chance of reporting new issues, while living with at least one toddler increased the chance of reporting new issue.

Reduced mental well-being was reported by those who had to schedule work hours around others in their household. Often this resulted in more distractions and reduced productivity, as well.

Female respondents and those in the lowest income groups (annual salary less than $100K) reported having new health issues in two or more categories more frequently than males and those in higher salary categories.

Those who have a dedicated workspace report greater productivity than those without one.

Mental health was also positively correlated with having a dedicated workspace.

Read more about how buildings can impact health and well-being here.

"A dedicated workspace signals to others at home they you are working. This contribute to establishing a productive work environment and increasing the desire to stay longer at a workstation," Becerik-Gerber said.

In the survey results, physical and mental health were significantly predicted by knowing how to adjust setup of a workstation. Specifically, physical and mental health improved with a consistent workstation setup. Working in a variety of places around the home--the kitchen table, the bedroom, the couch--instead of a dedicated room and space reduced productivity. Workers who had a regular desk or and adjustable office chair engaged more at their workstation compared with those who do not have such a desk or an adjustable chair.

Researchers partnered with Arup, a firm focusing across disciplines on enhancing the built environment, to create a smart desk to make workers more productive and improve their physical and mental well-being while seated.

About the respondents: 18 to 80 years old; 56.5% female, 32.1% male and 11.4% unreported; 82.8% full-time employees, 8.7% were students, 5.9% were part-time workers, and 2.6% were contractors; 60.9% were Caucasians, 24.6% were Asians, 9.3% were Hispanic or Latino, 2.8% were African Americans and 2.4% were marked as mixed ethnicity and other.


Illustrations by Madelin Lum.