Summary: The Workplace Conundrum
I sat down to write this paper six months ago. Many people were working from home, and those numbers were only on the rise. A growing number of professionals were beginning to embrace the possibilities of telecommuting. There is plenty of evidence that working from home offers a variety of benefits.
But the data on telecommuting is littered with qualifiers--the right sorts of people, certain types of jobs, only up to a certain number of hours, etc. I wanted to push back against all the hype. We were never going to live in a world where most people worked from home. Then, of course, things sort of fell apart, and we quickly found ourselves in some terrifying version of that very world.
Now, most people who can work from home are working from home. What are we supposed to do? To be honest, I don’t know. Like I said, working from home suits some people, but it’s not a great fit for others. Each person who finds themselves working from home is going to have to find their own tactics for staying productive until it becomes clearer what a post-pandemic work landscape looks like.
Understanding both the benefits and potential pitfalls of working from home is an essential first step in figuring out your own new tactics and workflows.
The Expansion of Working Remotely
Even before we faced this global pandemic, telecommuting was an increasingly important part of the professional landscape. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, telecommuting in the United States increased by 115% between 2005 and 2015. (1) And those numbers have been growing faster each year. It seems like we’re talking about an entirely different work landscape just five years ago when 37% of workers said they had telecommute. (9) Of course those numbers now, at least for the short-term, are significantly higher.
While there are inevitably some drawbacks to working remotely, most professionals have pretty well accepted the positive aspects. Most workers WANTED the option to work from home, at least for part of their workweek. It certainly can be an attractive way of getting your work done. Several studies stress the strong correlation between working from home and job satisfaction.(3, 6, 16, 19) We’ll dive deeper into some of those reasons later in this paper. Still, it’s not difficult to understand the attraction of increased autonomy, comfort, improved physical health, increased productivity, and not having to suffer through a daily commute. In fact, the increase in job satisfaction due to working from home is one of the most important benefits associated with employee retention. (6, 7, 19)
The Benefits of Working Remotely
The most obvious benefit of working from home is that you don’t have to suffer through that daily trip to and from the office. If you live more than 5 minutes from your office, commuting is certainly a drag on your productive day and your emotional well-being. The average American commutes 4 hours a week. (4) Over the course of a year, that’s a massive waste of time you could spend working or enjoying your family. Not only that, but you’re contributing to your city’s pollution and likely burning through tons of fossil fuels. Remote work eliminates this lost time and helps to reduce your company’s carbon footprint.
What should you be doing with all the time you’re not wasting on your commute? Your boss would probably prefer you to invest it back into the organization. Probably wishful thinking. But some studies have shown that working from home can significantly boost productivity. (5,19) These improvements are primarily credited to working slightly longer shifts and workspaces that take advantage of the peace and comfort of home. Of course, being forced to work from home during a pandemic might make it a bit more challenging to find a peaceful and comfortable place. But if you do manage to carve out a space of your own, time spent alone has been shown to improve innovation and creativity. (7)
Most knowledge workers are incredibly sensitive to the physical conditions of their working environment. They spend long, often uninterrupted hours in front of their screen and keyboard. The focused tasks of coding, lawyering, accounting, graphic design, and digital marketing do not require a person to sit in an office near dozens of coworkers. In fact, there are studies showing how an ‘interruption in flow’ can destroy productivity. (15, 19) If you just need to ‘hunker down and focus, an open office environment may destroy your ability to get stuff done.
A typical day in an office environment co-located with fellow employees is far from a “distraction-free” environment. Face-to-face meetings don’t always need to be face-to-face. It’s always somebody’s birthday. And coworkers mostly assume they’re contributing to a pleasant office vibe when they drop by just to check in with you. Often, working from home can mitigate or even eliminate most of these distractions.
Stronger Sense of Autonomy
Freedom in a person’s schedule is another touted benefit to working from home. If you want to work from 3 am to 10 am, take a 4-hour break and then finish your workday in the afternoon, you’re typically free to do so. Have to pick up the kids from school? Need to run to a doctor’s appointment? No problem. Nobody is looking over your shoulder and asking, “Hey, where’s Steven?” Most workers have a greater sense of satisfaction and autonomy when trusted to structure their own time and answer for their productivity. (3, 6)
Working from home draws on skills like self-regulation, discipline, and time management. Various information and communication technologies allow employees to stay engaged with their coworkers through remote meetings and project tracking tools. (14) There’s no reason to assume that greater employee autonomy correlates with a lack of engagement or responsibility.
Health and Comfort
One of the most underrated benefits of telecommuting is possible health benefits. Mostly due to the schedule flexibility and location convenience, remote workers can often have easier access to healthier food and more regular exercise. Coffee and a pastry, a working lunch, or a quick fast food meal become a lot less convenient compared to what you’ve got available in your home kitchen. Non-telecommuters showed higher risks for alcohol abuse, obesity, and tobacco use than their telecommuting counterparts. (8) The same principle holds for exercise habits.
There are also significant mental health benefits associated with working remotely. For instance, telecommuting employees reported lower stress levels and less frequent experiences of depression. (6, 8) Another aspect commonly referenced is the ability for introverts to be much more comfortable during their workday. There’s no need to engage in uncomfortable small-talk. And increased physical distance can help to foster a safe space for some employees. There is much less confrontation required when a coworker says something challenging to someone else’s belief system. Awkward socialization occurs less on a zoom call. (10)
The Shortcomings of Working Remotely
I understand why people want to focus on the positive aspects of remote work right now - not having a choice leaves us looking for the bright side, right? For those who believe it’s the way of the future, however, I beg to disagree. Years of research show why working together face-to-face is the most effective way to get things done, especially when it comes to communication and innovation.
Accountability and Trust
Many detractors of working remotely will point out their inability to hold remote employees accountable. If I’m honest with myself, this is my least favorite argument against remote work. Yes, it is much easier to sit over someone’s physical shoulder than their virtual one; however, I’m not a leader that believes micromanagement at this level works. Or, perhaps I have never run a company where this management style is effective.
However, some studies show that not all remote workers demonstrate the same work habits or accountability. For instance, battling procrastination is one of the most common complaints about telecommuting work arrangements. (3)
Us Versus Them
It is rare that a company can exclusively operate entirely remotely. There are some fantastic examples, but they are edge cases--most of them are software companies. (20) So, for the rest of us, our companies have a mix of knowledge workers and workers who need to do stuff in the office, factory, warehouse, kitchen or classroom. It would be impossible to have everyone work remotely. It is difficult to pull off effectively. Some experts even warn against the assumption that all employees also want to work from home or could self-manage an effective remote working arrangement. (3)
There are apparent collaboration constraints to consider. But, potentially much more damaging is the cultural divide you create when some employees get a perceived perk while others do not. I have seen this firsthand, where this awkward class division occurs, and the people working at the office become “us.” The remote people become “them.” The divide widens every time you have to “call Matt in” to a meeting where everyone is in a room but him. Several studies point to all sorts of ways that telecommuting harms coworker relationships. (6, 16) For most working communities, face-to-face interactions are essential to the development of team cohesion, friendships, and a sense of inclusion. (3)
Communication and Collaboration
Remote communication practices simply can not compete with the data throughput of in-person communication. Body language, focused attention, nervous twitches, shifting in seats, glossy eyes, nuanced gestures, and knowing glances are all missed in video calls. Experts argue that non-verbal cues make up at least 55% of all communication. (18) How can you read the energy of a room when you are not IN the room. If you run meetings with any frequency, you know this is true.
For instance, many companies (no longer only software companies) are adopting “agile” working methods which require immediate responsiveness, ongoing innovation, and real-time collaboration. Some emerging project management tools promise to support these demanding development practices. But for the foreseeable future, they will continue to be limited to mostly tracking development activities, rather than facilitating them. (12) Face-to-face interactions will continue to be far more productive within agile development environments. (7) Some experts even argue that physical separation of coworkers actually impedes knowledge sharing and development progress. (3)
One principle I’ll never question is that online collaboration is rarely as effective as in-person collaboration. Video conference calls are fine for status check-ins or for one person to communicate a message to a group. But when innovation and creative, collaborative thought is a critical component of your meeting, You. Must. Meet. In. Person.
Communicating creatively is far better as a dynamic, in-person group. (13) How many times have you been walking around at work and bump into someone? Water cooler conversations, lunches, after office happy hours, pop-ins at someone’s desk all contribute to the blending of knowledge and ideas. On occasion, that hallway chat sparks an idea or uncovers a problem you would have never realized existed. These random, chaotic connections are meaningful and fruitful. (7) Responding to unexpected demands or conflicting ideas creates unexpected spaces necessary for creativity to flourish. An innovative company knows this. They put smart, diverse people in a building, back away the micromanagers, and watch the creative ideas flow.
Remote meetings suffer greatly from distracted attendance. (17) I’m guilty of this on conference calls. When you are talking to someone digitally, you don’t pay attention. Be honest, how much attention do you really give to the other people on the call? Is it the same as if you were sitting right next to them? Maybe you’re the kind of person that is constantly checking your phone in a meeting room. I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the rest of us who actually look someone in the eyes when they speak. Remote conferencing will never be an adequate stand-in for face-to-face meetings.
Working remotely even poses problems when working alone. Most workers struggle to stay focused for extended periods. Distractions are everywhere: email, Twitter, Slack alerts, Facebook posts, etc. Whether we work alone or in an office environment, we’re surrounded by stimuli. Studies show that even when we manage to isolate ourselves from those external distractions, we still cannot deny the impulse toward self-interruption. (2) Despite our best efforts, we just can’t stop wondering about the latest news headlines, whether that package has been delivered yet, or if there might be any tasty snacks in the fridge.
Working together in person requires unique confrontation and compromise skills. I touched on trust before. When establishing trust, there is no replacement for eye-to-eye confrontation. It is easier to be passive-aggressive or avoid conflict altogether when you do not have to face the person you disagree with. You might think that removing confrontation and conflict is a positive side-effect of remote work. One of my favorite phrases is: “success and comfort are not compatible.” Healthy tension, conflict, disagreements, and competition are all a part of innovation and growth. If your people never argue and work in perfect harmony, your team will not innovate. (11)
Balance is the key. Imagine your ideal team - one that is productive, happy, physically and mentally healthy. A team that gets along even when they disagree and innovates with new and improved products and processes. Now, try to think how much more difficult it will be for that team to achieve this state of collaborative nirvana while working from their homes and in physical isolation.
Six months ago, I would have argued that if teamwork (and therefore, innovation) is critical to your company’s success, your best results will only come when your people are working together face-to-face. It was a no-brainer.
I also would have argued that the single essential tool for collaboration is the whiteboard. In a world before face-to-face meetings posed health risks, I would have offered stories of really getting things done in a room with your coworkers, a whiteboard, dry-erase markers. You wouldn’t have thought twice about walls covered in sticky notes. And with high confidence, I would have assured you that nothing digital that comes close. I still think I wouldn’t have been wrong.
But in a world reshaped by Covid-19, working from home and collaborating remotely is our current reality. And this pandemic will likely play a much more significant role in where we and our coworkers get our work done. Whether you’re lucky enough to have a dedicated home office, or you have to figure out how to set up shop each morning at one end of the kitchen table, you’ll need to find the right balance between presenting digitally and working with the ‘analog’ tools that made you most productive in your office.
About the Author
Anthony Franco is the founder of M.C. Squares.
M.C. Squares makes the dry-erase tools that allow you to customize your workspace in classrooms, at home, or in your office.
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