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A Contrarian View of Working From Home

A Contrarian View of Working From Home

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A Contrarian View of Working From Home

Every few years, usually during a crisis like pandemics (SARS, H1N1 and Covid) or a disaster like 9/11, the media and pundits declare that the days of office work are over. Soon, they say, almost everyone will be working from home.

But it seems, just like autonomous cars, the Sixers winning the championship and me losing 10 pounds, it is always one year away. For practical reasons, I do not think most people will ever work from home. But for the sake of argument, let us pretend it becomes more common. We will assume two things. One, there will be a major trend from office work to in-home work among professionals. Two, most people work for small and mid-sized companies where everyone lives within 45 minutes of the workplace. The last premise is important. Sure, major international firms have work teams that are global and have technologies and policies in place that make remote team interaction almost as effective as physical interaction. But most people work at companies that don’t have that infrastructure because they don’t need that infrastructure. We don’t all work for Google.

The average person works at a 350-person company that has a central location and 90% of the people employed there live 5 to 45 minutes from the central location. Some of the employees have easy commutes and some have challenging commutes. But all are commutable.

Work from home options tend to be most attractive for people who have tough commutes or for people who, for personal reasons, appreciate the ability to respond quickly to immediate family issues. It works easily for some disciplines like IT or sales, but is more awkward for most functions. Work from home appeals to a specific subset of employees. To other employees it sounds like a convenience but in reality, there are definite downsides to it, especially when it occurs permanently. Here are a few:

1) Humans are social animals. We regularly hear from home-based people who miss the office and who look forward to the social interaction that an office provides.
2) In a two-income family, one person working from home is nice. Both people working from home can get claustrophobic. I am sure you love your spouse, but 24 hours a day/7 days a week is a lot of time together. Even if your home could support two in-home offices, it may be personally unattractive for family reasons.
3) It’s tough to get promoted working remotely. That’s just a reality. Promotions are major corporate decisions and usually involve competition among employees. If half of your department works remotely and the other half works in the office, which pool is more likely to provide the promotion?
4) You will be the first one laid off in a downturn. There are two reasons for this:

a) You are invisible. The hidden reality of work from home is that you are culturally a contractor with benefits. Like the proverbial friends with benefits, it is never a long-lasting relationship.
b) Your company has invested in office space. It’s a fixed cost and they want to use it Like it or not, that rent needs to be justified. At best, they will require you to come into the office if they keep you.

A work from home policy that affects most of your company’s professional workforce on a permanent basis will hurt the following people:

1) Human Resources. What function does HR really have if they can’t personally interact with the staff? HR will become less strategic and more tactical. Information Tech will be responsible for HR’s function because culture will be most affected by technology and not HR policies. Relationships will be based on available tech, not on HR cultural goals. Maybe that’s a good thing though??

2) Ambitious people. Like it or not, most promotions are based on subjective criteria, one of which is a visible desire to achieve. Personally driven people get promoted. That’s a lot harder to demonstrate remotely.

3) Disciplines that require spontaneous interaction. High level marketing, creative engineering or HR, to name a few. Remote work usually requires scheduled and defined meetings, time delays because video feed or bad/dropped connections. There is not a lot of spontaneity possible with those limitations. Informal team building is impossible in any meaningful way. Every relationship and all communication becomes more formalized and scripted.

4) Whoever has to make the decision about who can and can’t work from home. Managing is tough enough. Who decides whether your Plant Controller needs to come in because they support the plant but your Staff Accountant working in finance can work from home, even though those people may work at the same location? That is a recipe for conflict.

Before you get sucked into home-based employment nirvana, think about the real-world implications. Never forget that every decision is a trade-off. If your job is not quantifiable in terms of results (sales closed, lines of code written, etc.) then it will be very hard for you to demonstrate excellence to your organization. If that’s a tradeoff you want to make, great. If not, don’t be surprised if, in a real work scenario, the next promotion in your group goes to someone with a more regular office presence.

Beware of corporate fads. Don’t be roadkill to someone else’s nifty new concept. Know the risks and make an appropriate choice for yourself.