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Cognitive performance in the home office—What professional chess can tell us

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During the Covid-19 crisis, millions of workers around the world have had to switch to working from home to comply with social-distancing policies. Arguably, this development reinforced a broader trend toward more flexible work arrangements that is likely to continue after the current pandemic. A crucial question for companies is how workers’ productivity changes in the home office compared to the regular office.

The answer to this important question depends on the specific job of an employee. For instance, previous research on call-center employees has found that productivity might increase in the home office. This could stem from lower noise levels and fewer interruptions by co-workers in an open-plan office. But are highly skilled workers also as productive at home in tasks that require a high degree of concentration and that are conducted under a high degree of time pressure? Such tasks might include working close to an important deadline or setting up a detailed contract. 

To provide insights into this question, we consider professional chess tournaments. Chess offers a unique setting for studying performance in a cognitive task, which is important in many modern professional, managerial, technical, and creative occupations. During the pandemic, most in-person chess tournaments have been canceled and replaced by online tournaments. For the first time, significant prize money and comparable rules in terms of time allowed to consider moves as with in-person tournaments were used. Are elite chess players in these online tournaments able to perform at the same level as in traditional, face-to-face tournaments? 

With the help of a powerful computer chess program that is vastly superior in playing strength to the current World Champion, we evaluated the quality of 27,000 moves made by the same elite chess players online and in in-person tournaments. Chess players, on average, performed worse when playing online. Among the seven players who competed in both in-person and online tournaments, larger errors were made when playing in the online event. Combining the effects across players and accounting for other potential differences in the chess game, such as the amount of time pressure and complexity of the chess positions, the average size of their errors was economically and statistically significantly higher in online tournaments.

This effect might be explained by the less competitive atmosphere in online than in live tournaments, which typically consist of sitting in front of a real chess board facing an opponent. Carrying this over to a work setting, the findings for chess imply that the very fact that, in the home office, workers might not experience the same pressure as in a real-work environment (sitting together with co-workers or seeing clients face-to-face) can result in a drop in cognitive performance. For employers and workers, this is an important factor to consider when comparing the benefits of a permanent home office next to noise and distraction levels (which were low both for online and offline chess), to reductions in the costs of operating office space, and to long-term consequences on well-being of employees.

What are the possible implications? Simple tasks could be done in the home office, provided a quiet working environment exists at home. For important high-stakes tasks, such as writing a legal contract or designing a new building, it might be better to conduct them in the office, even if there were a quiet working environment at home. 

© Steffen Künn, Christian Seel, Dainis Zegners

Steffen Künn is an assistant professor of economics at Maastricht University and a Research Fellow at IZA.
Christian Seel is an associate professor of economics  at Maastricht University.
Dainis Zegners is an assistant professor of management at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

Find more IZA World of Labor coronavirus content on our curated topics pages: National responses to Covid-19 and Covid-19—Pandemics and the labor market.

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