Maile is the President at Listen Technologies. She believes in travel, curiosity, great books, movies, love & chocolate.
Working in the comfort of a velour tracksuit is a joy. (Admittedly, I had to buy a new one, as I didn’t anticipate that trend coming around again.) I also find joy in seeing my coworkers in person and gathering around the super-fancy coffee machine in our industrial kitchen.
I’ve heard some business leaders, many of them in tech, claim that we’ll never work in offices again. Then we have others who say people absolutely need to work in an office to be productive. So, who’s right? As with many things in life, I believe the answer is somewhere in the gray zone. There are arguments that support both sides of the debate and a blend of the two.
Arguments For Working From Home
Before the pandemic, companies big and small were already moving toward allowing employees to work from home. Between 2005 and 2017, the number of people telecommuting in the U.S. increased by 159%, according to data from FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics. When the pandemic hit, many businesses pivoted to allow all employees to work from home. Some have decided to make those moves permanent. Facebook expects half of its employees to be remote workers within the next decade. Twitter, Square and Nationwide Insurance now have permanent remote workers, too. The reasons companies choose to allow remote work are varied, but here are some of the top ones.
• Savings: When people work from home, companies can save money on office space and supplies. Some businesses may also pay employees less based on their cost of living. For example, according to NerdWallet, a person living in San Francisco and earning $100,000 per year would only need to make $50,725 in Salt Lake City to maintain that same standard of living. While no decision should be driven solely by savings, employees can also save money if they spend less money on commuting.
• Increased productivity: When employees work from home, the New York Times explains (paywall) that they often deal with fewer distractions. Gone are conversations with colleagues, water-cooler breaks and long commutes. However, my perspective is that exceptional employees always find ways to maximize time with their colleagues (information exchange), take water cooler breaks (developing relationships) and replicate how they took advantage of long commutes (returning and making phone calls or learning through podcasts). Remote workers may also be able to spend less time in meetings — and we all probably need to spend less time in meetings.
• Wider talent pool: When you don’t require employees to commute to your office, you can recruit from anywhere. You can also draw from the pool of talent who can’t commute or need to work from home for other reasons. Thinking outside the box about your talent pool can pay off in spades by increasing your breadth of options.
In Defense Of The Office
Not everyone loves the idea of remote work. You may remember when then-CEO of Yahoo Marissa Mayer ordered (paywall) all remote employees to return to the office in 2013. Companies that argue against having remote workers say the best place for people to work is in the office. Here are some of the reasons.
• In-person collaboration: You can Zoom or Meet all you want, but seeing someone on video isn’t the same as in-person collaboration. Plus, there’s the issue of Zoom fatigue: Stanford researchers say this new fatigue is caused by the intensity of close-up eye contact, seeing yourself constantly on video, reduced mobility when video-chatting and higher cognitive loads during video conferences.
• Management issues: According to a survey from the Harvard Business Review (paywall), 38% of managers say remote workers generally perform worse than in-person employees. On the flip side, 40% of managers and supervisors reported low confidence in their ability to manage remote workers. This is a skill that is underdeveloped for many managers. Someone will likely develop a leadership skills course for it.
• Struggling younger workers: In 2020, Smartsheet commissioned a survey of global professionals. It found that 91% of Millennials and 89% of Gen Z — digital natives — struggled with working remotely during Covid-19. Many workers reported feeling less connected to their teams and having trouble prioritizing work. I believe managing this talented pool is essential to business success.
The Case For Blending
Allowing for a blend of remote workers and in-person staff could give people and companies the best of both worlds. According to a Gartner survey, about 70% of service employees want to continue to work from home in some capacity post-pandemic. Here are some pros of a blended solution.
• Freedom: People could choose whether they’re in the office or working from home. A 2020 Global Workplace Analytics survey found that, on average, people in the U.S. would like to work from home 2.5 days per week. Apple plans to have employees in the office at least three days per week starting in September. I love the freedom of my velour tracksuit days.
• Benefits: People can go to the office to connect with their team and have the advantages of working from home. They’ll enjoy the social benefits of in-person communication as well as the advantages of doing their jobs remotely. Companies can allocate specific days for meetings and specific days for project work.
• Improved trust: Managers who have trouble trusting employees who work from home will be able to see them in action at least part of the time. These managers should commit to learning how to develop better trust and communication with employees.
Clearly, businesses should do research before making decisions about their workforce’s location. Education, setting realistic expectations and communication are some keys to success.
I believe business leaders who support remote work and those who say employees need to be in the office are both right. We should balance how we envision the workplace because of the benefits of working from home and in the office. In addition, this is a personal choice for every leader, every company and every individual. One standard or plan isn’t going to work for every situation. Some people like velour, some people prefer flannel and some are fine with wearing both at the same time.