Will “work from home” become more common? That’s the question many workers are asking as we grapple with the great disruption. But, those hopeful pajamas will become the workplace outfit of choice shouldn’t get their hopes up. Like I explained on my show, it’s more likely work will return to the office, albeit in a decentralized form.
Will work from home become more common?
It’s true the great disruption has sparked a wave of work from home (WFH) employees. From mid-March to the end of March, the amount of Americans working from home doubled! And for now, 6 in 10 Americans seem to like working from home.
Given that there are a lot of positives that come with adopting a WFH model, like lower congestion, lower car emissions, and lower commute times, what could go wrong from a new WFH model? Quite a bit, actually.
Work from home difficulties are numerous
Despite the clear upsides, I’d argue there are far more downsides only now becoming apparent as the great disruption and WFH experiment develops. The most obvious reasons are the distractions that come from converting a home into an office.
Challenge 1: Technology stinks
The WFH transition has been made possible by widely available internet, video conference tools, and other technology. These tools come with their share of distractions, however.
According to Bain & Company, distractions like background noise, incoming emails, and parcel deliveries are only the beginning. Communication barriers like audio delays, buffering, bad lines, muted mics, or bad phone etiquette make focus difficult.
Challenge 2: Communication stinks
Communication takes a major hit too. From the Bain report, “Psychologist Albert Mehrabian found that nonverbal messages conveyed more than 90% of feelings and attitudes. In virtual collaboration, the body language we use to read the room, correct course and build energy (the nodding heads, the folded arms, the restlessness) are gone. Making do with a stamp-sized image of a colleague on a computer screen can leave us feeling exposed.”
Non-verbals aren’t limited to obvious body language, but also facial expressions, intonation, pacing, and visible excitement, anger, or frustration communicate a large amount of data even without a single word. This data is valuable.
By simply contorting my face as if I’m tasting something sour, simultaneously exhaling could communicate my disagreement. ಠ_ಠ It’s for this reason researchers believe we have turned to emoticons (and I’d add GIFs) as a way to supplement lost communication. Obviously, it’s a poor supplement.
Work from home challenge 3: Tools are poor and will likely stay that way.
Consider how often many teams still rely on tools like printed paper, whiteboards, and marking up reports with highlighters sticky notes, etc. To truly replicate this in a work from home scenario would be quite expensive and require a complete studio. Even product or marketing companies still rely on real models and physical products, print proofs, markup, prototypes, and materials.
Scott McLeod, Chief of Staff for Resident, makers of the Nectar Mattress, have a 99% remote workforce and he explained to me this is still a challenge they haven’t figured out how to solve without a workspace.
It’s likely that our work from home tools will get better of course, but according to Bain & Co.’s report, there will still be a steep learning curve for both facilitators and participants. Heck, we still haven’t figured out the “you’re on mute” issue. And let’s not forget about updates that always like to install themselves 5 minutes before your next meeting.
A hybrid model and decentralized corporate HQ.
Keep in mind a WFH model is still very much an experiment and due to its novelty status, I’d expect to see Gallup’s aforementioned findings change. Many WFH survivors will tell you, while it’s refreshing at first, over time the experience sours.
In a great piece by Larry Alton, written for NBC News, many pajama-productivity proponents typically suffer from loneliness, depression, or detachment from reality. (Been there, done that.) It’s for this reason, I believe a hybrid model is more likely than a true WFH model. Even after bragging about their work-from-home model, IBM decided to bring employees back to the office.
Consider we could get the same benefits of lower congestion, lower commute times, and lower emissions by simply spreading out corporate campuses into the communities in which their employees live.
Instead of driving 30-45 minutes to get to work, a community-centered workplace model would allow you to bike or walk to your nearest work location within 5 miles of your home. Instead of building massive expensive buildings in high-priced real estate markets, companies could simply buy up local real estate and do quick conversions. Possibly, even using local coworking spaces, further connecting to their local business community.
Consider the benefits to this approach: it would satisfy the collaboration element, give employees a way to connect with others, energize neighborhood economies, work to eliminate run-down areas, and obviously lower congestion. If people needed to meet with team members, they could simply commute to those locations when necessary instead of every day.
Will work from home become more common? I doubt it. But perhaps the community-centered workplace will.
11/2/20 UPDATE: It appears as though this model might be catching on soon according to Alistair MacDonald’s new piece in the Wall Street Journal.