As I write this article, I am working from home. Home is where my main office sits, where I get all of my work done, and where you can find me most days. It isn't like that for a majority of Americans, but why not? Why haven't the connected IT ecosystems and networks of the world allowed for a greater portion of the workforce to operate from home?
Certainly, the ongoing pandemic has forced many to quickly adopt a work-from-home model — while also demonstrating that a lot of the infrastructure needed to work from home has been in place for quite some time now. And yet, until recently, many major companies were eliminating work-from-home models. Which begs the question: What is the downside that everyone is afraid of?
Are employees less productive, or connected, when they don't gather to a single physical location for each day's work? Is there a financial disincentive? In the future, will more people have the freedom to telecommute (a word that originated in the 1990s but has yet to bear full fruit), or at least work with more of a distributed workforce model? Or are we OK continuing to live in offices and cubicles?
Working hard, or hardly working?
One of the most oft-discussed barriers to a true work-from-home scenario is time management. From the employer's perspective, they may that workers cannot go unsupervised — if left to their own devices, they will not work. For a company envisioning this problem, it is useful to measure by goals, rather than by hours. That is to say, by work turned in rather than perceived hours of work done. At the end of the day, in other words, what do hours worked matter if the work assigned is getting done?
From an employee's perspective, time is the enemy for every home-based business owner who is also responsible for home maintenance chores, and the well-being of his or her family. At times, it may be difficult to tell where the at-home work day ends, and attention to family and other personal obligations begins.
If you've ever found yourself in this fix, there's comfort to be found in knowing that you're not alone. And also in getting organized: Set boundaries by establishing a starting point and a stopping point and firmly adhere to your schedule. You have to put your tasks in a box and try to accomplish goals.
The necessity of pants-wearing
Employers also often fear that a home office environment will be less structured, and therefore not well suited to the formality of work. If people are not required to come to an office, will they get up on time, practice good hygiene, or even get dressed?
These can be real challenges. If you are going to allow a work-from-home option for your employees, then you may want to be map out some guidelines for workers.
For employees, this second roadblock can hit very close to the heart. While the freedom associated with working from home can be liberating, some professionals require a more structured working environment to truly succeed. Designating office space, maintaining regular work hours, and even getting dressed to start the day are just a few in-home work habits to consider in promoting structure, self-discipline, and motivation.
Where is the water cooler?
Social isolation can also be a concern. Even in today's connected world, people need other people. Many companies are investing in gathering areas for employees to socialize during breaks, or while eating lunch. The perception of cutting people off from each other can be a roadblock to allowing regular, permanent work-from-home arrangements. It's a gamble that some companies would rather not take.
From an employee standpoint, people who work from home often complain of isolation and loneliness. One loses the social aspects that can sometimes make working in an office environment more enjoyable. Since the workplace provides an outlet to meet people and make friends, professionals working from home have to be more creative and resourceful.
It can be important to schedule time that caters to social interaction by going to the gym, scheduling a lunch date, or taking a walk with a neighbor. You have to find the right balance. The notion of creating a better work life balance and making money from home can be tempting — but fear of isolation can also trigger doubts that hinder one's ambition to try something new.
What time is it where you are?
Remote workers can also be hampered by time zone differences. This can seem like a small issue from a company standpoint but individual employees may have a different experience. I once had a partner based in India — I had to be ready to take a call at 2 a.m. Such time differences complicate communication because your work hours don't overlap that much.
This can loom large when you really need to solve something quickly, which can be practically impossible. In the absence of synchronized work schedules, even the smallest issue can potentially take weeks to solve. Such challenges can recur if workers aren't able to articulate areas of improvement or detail, which can be difficult without face-to-face conversations.
To solve such issues, it is critical to have quick communication channels, something that bypasses the necessity of waiting days for an e-mail response. You also need to specify the times that you are available — and unavailable — to talk. To speed things up a bit, I use instant messaging platforms like Google Meet (formerly Hangouts).
Concerns real and imagined
So is it true that workers are more (or less) productive when conducting their business from home? Airtasker, a gig economy platform, sought out some answers via a survey of 1,004 full-time employees, asking them about their daily tasks and efficiency. Just over half of respondents said they work from home a majority of the week.
Remote workers take 22 minutes a day for breaks, compared to 18 minutes for in-office workers. They also worked an average of 1.4 more days every month, or 16.8 more days every year. Office workers reported being idle for about 37 minutes a day, excluding lunch and standard breaks, while remote workers proved to be more productive, with just 27 minutes of unproductive time.
When it came to retaining focus on work tasks, the differences were minimal: Only 8 percent of remote workers, and 6 percent of in-office employees, found it difficult to stay on track with their daily tasks. In-office workers, however, were 17 percentage points more likely than remote employees to avoid working when their screen time or mouse movements were being tracked.
I personally feel like if I map out my day and hit my marks, then I can keep on track and be very productive working from home. I once worked for a company that tracked mouse movements, and it added a great deal of stress to my day.
Can't get no satisfaction?
Are people who work remotely more content? We do what we have to do to succeed at work, but how many people know how much they spend commuting to and from their job every day? When compared with office employees, remote workers saved $4,523.04 on fuel each year.
They were also able to maintain healthier lifestyles, as they clocked an extra 25 minutes of physical activity each week. More money and a better body are a few perks that a work-from-home schedule can give you, if you let it.
This may seem surprising, but on the whole I find myself on the side of limiting work from home. I don't see a way past the importance of good, old-fashioned esprit de corps. People need to feel like they belong to a group, and you cannot get physical relationships from a virtual world, no matter how well its connected.
On the other hand, there's never been a situation quite like the current pandemic to put this line of thinking to the test ... literally.