We were all there: businesses worldwide were forced to make a rapid switch from the traditional office setting to going completely remote in a matter of weeks. Luckily, employers and HR leaders can now take a step back and ask themselves: is working from home really what is best for everyone? The answer to that question truly lies in several places: with the leaders of the company, with the culture of the company, and with the individual employees who form the company team. Both employers and employees need flexibility around remote and in-office work as we continue to find out what’s working best from these diverse perspectives.
Communication and socialization
Talking to your colleagues through a zoom meeting is, arguably, nothing like talking with them in person. Do you consider FaceTime with your family members the same as seeing them in person? Probably not, and the same goes for your co-workers. It’s challenging to build relationships and communicate virtually, which can be especially relevant for new employees. Working together in the same space closes that gap. You can hear or see an issue as it unfolds and present a solution to it. Suppose a team member is struggling with a client or overwhelmed with a project. In that case, someone is right there to lend immediate assistance – it is easy to ask for help (or provide it) when the situation is right in front of you.
Being physically present also allows for those informal conversations where you can chat about your weekend, talk about the weather, or even express your current frustrations. Working remotely can leave people feeling like they are living and working in a box (and we thought cubicles could be bad)! While we may have enjoyed this change at first, humans are naturally social creatures, and this lack of socialization can be challenging. You spend a third of your day with the people you work with, and the relationships with these people can easily slip away when you are not seeing each other regularly. So, if you have not seen your colleagues recently – they probably miss you!
However, for some, there can be a little too much chatter around the office. The potentially quieter environment of your own home may be preferred; the interruptions may be fewer, and potential workplace drama may be easier to steer clear of. This is especially true for people who would typically work independently anyway. Sitting in an office alone – immersed in a project or task that involves intense concentration – likely will not feel differently than sitting in your home office absorbed in that same task.
Whether working remotely or in person, employers should exemplify the importance of building relationships, communicating, and working as a team. Employees should be encouraged to collaborate both formally and informally with those in other departments through various means to the benefit of both fellow employees and customers.
Employers have generally seen a boost in employee productivity when working from home. A Stanford study found that the average employee increased their productivity by about 13% when doing so. The reasons? Not having to deal with a morning commute allows employees to start work first thing – usually right when they wake up – while avoiding an evening commute might compel employees to use that time to continue their workday. By cutting out a possibly timely commute, employees can save money on gas and wear and tear on vehicles, translating to a more environmentally conscious work week – a win-win for some!
With employees working from home, I often hear that different types of work can be completed because the distractions are far less. There may be less instances of colleagues popping over for a chat (on the flip side, there may be less instances of colleagues popping over to ask for assistance or advice on certain projects). The various distractions we all encounter throughout the day can undoubtedly hamper one’s ability to complete their daily work obligations.
It is important to note, however, that this boost in productivity can come at a cost for both the employee and the employer. For an employee, the lack of clear boundaries between when work starts and ends can create a feeling of the omnipresent job, one where there is no break in sight. This can lead to significant burnout and stress and may even lead to employees feeling undervalued or underrecognized – providing reasons to look for another job. Employers and managers may miss out on the great work their employees are doing and thus fail to provide recognition or potential advancement, further cementing that feeling of being undervalued. The potential disconnect between employees and employers can leave room for misinterpretation of workload and current expectations, leading to frustrations for everyone.
Work-life balance (and other challenges)
Working from the office provides clear distinction of when work begins and ends. Employees more often have a defined schedule (and don’t we all look forward to the end of a long, accomplished workday?) Working from home may not allow for this, as the distinction between work life and home life inevitably blurs. You can get more work done, but at what cost? Many employees report working more hours when they work from home; of course, it’s hard not to check your email when your laptop is down the hall – or even on your kitchen counter – or finish “just one more thing” before logging off for the night.
For some people, there is no defined space for a home office, and many wind up spending the entire day in their bedroom to avoid various distractions and noise. Perhaps some are forced to constantly move their “offices” to avoid other household members who are currently working or attending school from home. Neither of these situations is ideal, and it can be difficult to get work done from home as the distractions are endless. Having no distinct break from kids, pets, or the never-ending to-do list, forms a less than ideal work-life balance. Instead, it can feel more like you work all the time, and squeeze life in when you can.
One significant benefit to working from home that I have heard from many employees is the ability to start and end work according to their own schedules. This is absolutely a great benefit. But, many HR leaders would contend that the dialogue between employers and employees should be open to the idea that work can always be done on an individual’s own schedule (within reason, of course). Employees shouldn’t have to work from home to feel the relief of a flexible schedule; it can be just as easy to have a flexible schedule while working in the office. Leaving your house in the middle of the day for a doctor’s appointment shouldn’t be any different than needing to leave the office in the middle of the day for a doctor’s appointment. If a flexible schedule is acceptable for employees working from home, employers need to also allow employees to have that same flexibility while in the office.
Importantly, heading into the office can help people feel normal again (because the past year and a half has been anything but normal). However, heading into the office only feels normal if other people are there, too. Employers and managers should discuss with their employees what their work week can and should look like, especially given differences in company culture and even within various departments and positions. Remember, communication is key – leaders need to set expectations, develop schedules that work for their teams, and then be clear with feedback and stick to commitments!