Technology's inherent rapid advancement has allowed the number of people who work from home full-time to increase over the last few decades, meaning some people never go into the office, and rarely see their colleagues face-to-face. Seemingly everyone is doing it, yet, as of 2019, only 5.2% of American workers work full-time from home.
COVID-19, also referred to as the Coronavirus, is changing that, at least in the short-term. By forcing many organizations to close their offices, hundreds of thousands of people have started to work fully from their home over the past couple of weeks.
The question on every white-collar manager and employee's mind is, is this going to last? Here are just a few of the advantages and disadvantages of working from home. Ultimately we find that telecommuting does not work for most employers and workers.
The Advantages of Working From Home
First, it is important to recognize there are several advantages of working from home. Remote working has these benefits:
- Allows them to be more comfortable with their attire and working in a familiar environment.
- By eliminating their commute people spend less time and money on transportation.
- There are productivity benefits when working on individual tasks.
When working from home, it is easier to have a relaxing day, free from bustling traffic and busy streets. Many people also think that working from home will give them a flexible schedule, so that they can better focus on their family. They find that commuting makes them a lot less happy, taking valuable minutes out of their day. They would much prefer to work at home and avoid the cost of transportation as well. Employees also say that they are able to better focus at home, away from noisy distractions in their office.
Although going into the office may be more expensive and less comfortable for workers, it is found that the costs of commuting are outweighed by the benefits of being in the workplace.
Disadvantages of Telecommuting for Employees
Distractions in the Home
In theory, remote employees see productivity gains from better focus. However factors often override those benefits:
- Driving kids to school or various activities or just walking into your office to ask a question or grab a toy.
- Instead of hitting the cafeteria or getting takeout, cooking a meal. Or taking "just one minute" to clean the kitchen.
- Walking the dog.
- With your TV just a button press away, and everything streaming, it's easy to lose time to your favorite show, sporting events or video games.
- Having the day slip away viewing a popular website or trying to get to the next level in that addictive game.
These are just a few of the many distractions present in a home work setting. Research show 64% of remote workers state that they sometimes take care of personal business during the work day.
At the office, the family, home errands and technology distractions are out of plain site. Or, at a minimum, there are social pressures (and stares from the boss) to stay on track. All of this leads to a more productive day when working at the office.
Increases Worker Loneliness
One disadvantage of telecommuting is feeling socially isolated. Working remotely entails fewer in-person interactions compared to when working in an office. Instead of having normal conversations throughout the day, remote workers may only be in touch with coworkers and management once a week, or even once a month. When not around colleagues and other coworkers, remote workers can begin to feel isolated.
In-person interactions are a really important part of an individual’s happiness. No matter who you are, how much you make, or where you live, your day-to-day level of happiness largely correlates to how often we connect with other people. So when working from home, you may start to feel lonely and in need of a human interaction. This can cause remote workers to eventually become lonely and even depressed.
In an office setting, these types of daily interactions are almost inevitable, making it harder for employees to feel lonely. No matter how close you are to a coworker, their simple greetings in the morning can be vital to your happiness. Having social interaction in the workplace can also boost your interpersonal, speaking, and listening skills. Furthermore, these interactions also play an important role in the company culture and collaboration. Culture is important in the workplace because it is what makes the company unique. It drives engagement and the satisfaction of workers goes up. When everyone works from home, a lot of this motivation is lost.
Many people do not thrive without any social interactions. In a study partnering Stanford and Ctrip, China’s biggest travel agency, half of the workers were randomly chosen to work from home, while their colleagues worked in the office. After nine months, 50% of those who worked at home asked to come back into the office due to loneliness. This shows that one of the biggest disadvantages of remote work is feeling isolated and lonely. Therefore, one of the most compelling reasons to work in an office as opposed to at home is to get the social interactions that you need to stay happy and healthy.
Disadvantages of Telecommuting for Employers
Loss of Innovation and Creativity
Working from home causes companies to lose talent and reduce creativity. When in the workplace, innovation and creativity thrives by allowing coworkers to build on each others' ideas in real life. One of the best ways to spur creativity is through spontaneous meetings and discussions. You start a conversation with someone, and all of the sudden you have all sorts of new ideas. These types of social interactions in the workplace are one of the best ways to spark innovation. In fact, working in small groups is where innovation and performance excel. These human interactions are so important to the growth of the company for these reasons.
When you work from home though you do not get the benefits of these unexpected employee interactions. This leads to less creativity and even a communication gap. Working in the office is really important for “collaborative efficiency.” This is the speed at which a group of people solves a problem. Remote workers drag this collaborative efficiency down. This is simply because collaboration requires communication. And the fastest and cheapest way to communicate is still through the office. Instead, many back and forth communications from an at-home-worker could have been quickly resolved over the water cooler in the office. This is much more convenient for everyone involved. Instead of wasting time and energy, problems are solved much more efficiently in the office. A remote worker may spend half of their work day trying to clear up a miscommunication.
Working from home takes away so many opportunities for ideas and thoughts that are often brought on by office conversations. Overall, working from home eliminates a lot of chances for creativity and innovation on the employee’s part. In an office, the employee has much easier access to human interactions, therefore making them more productive and more creative.
Management Loses Productivity Too
In any organization it is very important for managers to stay in touch with their employees. If they do not, they often feel as though they are losing control of their teams. Having remote workers makes this process even more difficult.
In the office, a manager can just stroll by an employees office to check in on them. Even more passively they may get a sense for what is happening simply seeing an employee in the hallway or by observing them in a meeting.
With telecommuters, this process must be different. Instead, managers have to set up online calls or meetings to check in on their employees. This consumes lots of time on their end. They may have to spend hours a day in these one-on-one meetings. It is much more productive to be in a space where a manager can talk to you in passing, without having to spend time to schedule and plan a virtual meeting to check in.
Secondly, management has to decide who gets to telecommute and who doesn’t. This brings in many new issues, as a telecommuter has to be disciplined and responsible at home. This can become an equity issue. Employees who are not chosen to telecommute may become resentful of their manager, which would weaken the telecommuting efforts. In addition, it is much harder for management to evaluate their employees when they cannot see the working everyday. Instead of seeing their employee do the work, they must rely on performance. They must look at the employees’ quantifiable work, which can be much harder to judge.
Managers will lose a lot of time trying to evaluate employees. This wastes valuable time that managers could have been using to focus on other tasks. In general, it is much more difficult for management to control and discipline remote workers than it is for them to manage workers in the office.
Hurts Employee’s Career Progression
In a study on Chinese workers in Shanghai, the workers who worked from home proved to have more productivity, yet they weren’t getting promoted any faster. In fact, being a remote worker seemed to reduce your chances at being promoted. This shows that when working from home, you are less likely to get promoted.
Managers tend to give promotions to people they can see doing the work, even if others are doing it just as well. This throws off the natural progression through the company as usual. Managers think that the most effective way to get things done is through face-to-face interactions. In fact, employees who work remotely may receive lower performance evaluations and smaller raises compared to their colleagues in the office. It’s sort of like an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
If you are in the office as much as possible, managers are more likely to promote you. When managers were asked to recall traits about their employees, they were 9% more likely to describe workers who they had seen around the office as “dependable” and “responsible” compared to remote workers. This shows that just by being in the office, managers subconsciously think that their employees are more dependable than the ones they did not see. This time in the office can therefore lead to more promotions, higher raises, and other benefits compared to workers who work from home. In the same study partnering Stanford and Ctrip, the workers who worked from home for nine months were promoted at half the rate of their counterparts working in the office. This again shows that remote working leads to lower chances of being promoted, regardless of performance.
Furthermore, when asking part-time remote workers about their experiences with coworkers, they also state that when they do work at home, they feel their colleagues do not treat them equally. They are more subject to being left out and mistreated by their coworkers. This can throw off the company’s culture and create tension between workers. This can also cause employees to lose productivity and time over these disagreements. This shows that remote workers are not likely to be seen as worthy for a promotion, by both their managers and their coworkers.
Although remote work has some advantages, when all is said and done, in most scenarios, everyone wins when they work together in an office environment. This does not mean managers should go back to the old way either. The ideal scenario is finding the benefits of each and putting them to use.
For example, perhaps organizations should give employees the opportunity to telecommute one day every week, or every other week. This provides some flexibility to run errands and to save on money and time commuting.
When employees are at the office how can you make the most of their efforts spent commuting? Setup your working environment to facilitate communication and the types of meetings that lead to creativity and innovation. You should also encourage social interactions so employees feel fulfilled and connected to their team.
The office should also be designed to allow employees to focus when they need to. Use dedicated quiet zones, or library zones, and office automation technology like a visitor management system. These tools will eliminate distractions affording the productivity benefits of being at home.
By combining the advantages of working at the office with the benefits of working remote, you can set your organization up to attract, retain and get the best performance from world-class employee talent.