COVID-19 resulted in a shift towards working from home. This column discusses the findings of a survey of over 2,000 UK working adults, which suggest that online meetings are more efficient for smaller gatherings of 2 to 4 people, while in-person meetings are preferred for gatherings of 10 or more. Online efficiency is also dependent on demographics, with women and more educated employees reporting that online meetings are relatively more efficient. Unsurprisingly, employees who work from home more and with good internet quality also report higher relative online meeting efficiency.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an immediate shift towards working from home (WFH) in early 2020. Employees started to use their home spaces such as kitchens, bedrooms and offices to work remotely and comply with social distancing measures (Davis et al. 2021). There is evidence that employees like WFH, making it challenging for them to return to the office (Bloom et al. 2021). And in terms of productivity, although some employers saw lower productivity from remote working (Bartik et al. 2020; Morikawa 2021), most employers have seen productivity from WFH rise overall (Davis et al. 2021).
In this column, we show that the efficiency of videocalls is more complex than first appears since it differs by demographic characteristics and by the level of technical support that is provided. To answer how efficient is it to work from home, we use the October 2021 update of our survey (Taneja et al. 2021) of over 2,000 UK working adults, and draw a comparison between online meetings and in-person meetings.
Small teams are more efficient meeting online
Figure 1 shows online meeting efficiency compared to in-person, by team size. We find that online meeting efficiency differs by team size, with a steady decrease in efficiency with increasing meeting size. From talking to employees and firms we hear that small two- to four-person online meetings do not typically require muting and each person is in a large Zoom box. These online meetings save on travel and can be easier for sharing documents, so that on average people find it more efficient to meet online rather than in person with small groups. In reverse for large meetings of 10+ people efficiency is better on average in person. In large meetings online, each person is in a small zoom box so facial expressions can be hard to see, and participants generally have to mute so conversations can be stilted. With so many participants there are also more frequent interruptions, with accidental unmuting, individuals turning on/off cameras, and distracting chat conversations.
Demographic characteristics matter
We analyse the efficiency of online meetings versus face-to-face meetings by age in Figure 2. Respondents aged 30-39 and 40-49 have the highest online meeting efficiency boost. Interestingly this is also the group that in our data has the highest preferred number of days to work from home. One explanation for the preference to work from home amongst middle-aged employees is their higher level of young children at home, although it is less obvious it should make them perceive online meetings as relatively more efficient.
Figure 3 examines online meeting efficiency compared to face-to-face meeting by gender, and we find that men report online meetings are about 5% more efficient on average compared to men. According to Ibarra et al. (2020), providing women the flexible option to work from home will be an ‘equalizer’, as the time saved from travelling to work and meeting people face-to-face can help balance off work and childcare time constraints.
Online meeting efficiency versus in-person does also displays a difference in efficiency by education. In Figure 4a, we find that as education increases, online meeting efficiency increases compared to face-to-face meetings. While respondents with a doctorate are considerably more efficient online, by 9.4%, respondents with a master's degree have a smaller boost, of 5.6%. Furthermore, respondents with GCSEs (aged 16 schooling) or lower are only 0.2% more efficient online versus in-person. One factor perhaps explaining this is Figure 3b which shows the hours and money spent improving WFH efficiency, by education. The data is taken from the following question asked in the survey: How many hours have you invested in learning how to work from home effectively (e.g., learning how to use video-conferencing software) and creating a suitable space to work? And with respect to the money spent improving WFH efficiency, we ask the following question: How much money (in pounds) have you and your employer invested in equipment or infrastructure to help you work from home effectively – computers, internet connection, furniture, etc.? (Note 1) From Figure 4b, more educated respondents are likely to spend more hours in improving their WFH efficiency.
Home internet quality contributes to the meeting efficiency online
The level of home internet is another factor that influences online meeting efficiency (e.g. Barrero et al. 2021). This seems natural, but there is more to it than just a good signal. Figure 5 portrays three key points of WFH, in relation to internet quality and team size. First, the overall efficiency of online meetings compared to in-person meetings gradually declines with team size, regardless of the quality of the internet connection that the teams have access to. Smaller teams consistently prefer online meetings, while large teams favour in-person meetings. Second, internet quality has a significant effect on the efficiency of online meetings compared to in-person meetings within a team. Improving internet connection from poor to good, or from good to perfect results in considerable improvements to team meeting efficiency, regardless of the size of the team. Third, for small teams of up to four persons, it is beneficial to have online meetings rather than in-person ones, even with a bad internet connection. On the other hand, for very large teams, even perfect internet connection is only barely enough to make online meetings slightly more efficient than in-person ones. There is no reason to think that this is the only influence on efficiency, and quality of workspace or work equipment other than the internet connection may also play a part in determining online versus in-person efficiency for teams according to their size. It does suggest, though, that businesses that provide technical support in the form of investment in better internet, computer equipment, software, IT support, and even training may reap greater efficiencies and lower inequalities between workers.
Meeting efficiency and WFH intensity
For many jobs there are likely to be some tasks that are more amenable to working remotely than others. When we compare online meeting efficiency compared to in-person, we find this is influenced by the number of days respondents are WFH. From Figure 6, those working 4 and 5+ days in a week report a 10.3% and 9.4% increase, respectively, in efficiency of online meeting versus face-to-face meetings. On the other hand, those working 1 day a week report online meeting efficiency of -0.9%, and this further reduces to -6.8% when respondents work in the office all the time. This is perhaps not that surprising – jobs that can be effectively done remotely are also those that can have meetings carried out most easily online.
Remote working is reported to be very efficient for small team sizes, whereas face-to-face meetings are better for large groups of people. But this hides some important differences between workers according to their demographics. Analysing employee characteristics, online meeting efficiency is substantially higher for women and for middle-aged and educated workers, but correspondingly less efficient for men and for older and less-educated workers. Technical support also matters. Home internet quality has a significantly positive effect on the efficiency of online meetings compared to in-person meetings within a team, but even with excellent internet quality, large team meetings might still be more efficient in person.
This article first appeared on www.VoxEU.org on January 4, 2022. Reproduced with permission.