There are many old school employers who don’t believe people are working unless they can see them and much of their wish to get people back to the office is around their own inability to adapt to the new hybrid world. Perhaps some leaders miss the trappings and the status: the corner office, preferential car parking, the secretary outside the door, things you do not visibly see if people are all working for home. However, this is not all employers, and there are some justifiable reasons employers may want employees back more than they currently are coming back, and it may be to the benefit of the employee.
Tacit knowledge: Lynda Gratton a work expert speaks a lot about the most valuable knowledge that resides within a company is tacit knowledge. It can be knowledge held in the minds of others, insights, know-how that is not easy to codify or express simply. There is a strong argument that you can only really access another’s tacit knowledge when you know them and when you trust each other. The only way you build trust is over time and without doubt is rarely done over email or Zoom, it is face to face.
Career not task productivity: any study that I have read on how productive people are at home has been self-reported. People are asked if they are more productive and they generally say yes. The challenge here is what they are measuring in most cases is tasks done. However, how do you measure a networking conference for productivity, would a day speaking to peers feel like a productive day? What about a day where you go to a different office/ location and spend most of it just meeting and getting to know other teams. The challenge with self-reported productivity is that it misses some of the vital long term benefits of building relationships and generally ignores events where you cannot attribute a short term benefit to it. Cultivating relationships may not be an easy productivity metric but its vital to an organisations performance and to the career of an employee.
Automation of jobs: Many reports have highlighted that if you can do your job 5 days a week at home without the need to ever meet in person, your job will probably be done by a machine in 10 years time. This is probably an oversimplification but there is no doubt that meeting someone over a screen misses out on all of those amazing person to person benefits when we physically meet. In person we can often feel when someone is uncomfortable or angry but these do not transfer across a Zoom call as much of this is happening at a biological level that necessitates people being in the same room. Video calls are an amazing step forward for business and for the environment but ask yourself if you are not using those human skills, how quick could your job (or part of your job) be replaced by a machine. Our key differentiator from robots and AI is the difficulty machines have of replicating our incredible human skills, which we need to continue to strengthen in a digital world.
Decompression: When we commute, we move from one identity to another, our work persona vs our home persona. This crossing from one identity to another is what psychologists call “boundary work” which does not happen when we work from home. At home we regularly experience role spill-over, we rarely have strict start and finish times to our day and this can lead to added stress at home. We also lose that decompression time between being at work and being at home. Whether it’s a commute by bike car or train your mind continues to process the day’s events on that commute, which does not happen if work and home are the same place. There is no question that the lack of commute saves time each day, but you may be losing something more important.
Polarisation of your views: Nick Bloom of the Work from Home Institute highlights that if you look at the views of your friends and family, they tend to be much more polarised than at work. You often have the same political views as your family, but you really can’t choose your work colleagues. In the USA for example, if you come into work and you’re sitting between a Republican and a Democrat, you will have to moderate a bit. If you now are working from home full-time, you don’t really have that moderating experience. People also very much choose the media they want to view, therefore it turns out that just about the least polarised information source you get are co-workers. If you cut that out by being remote or at least cut out those non-work conversations (because they rarely happen over Zoom), that is a big risk. With the increased focus on ED&I and the basic idea to look at things from other people’s perspective, we may be missing some of our ability to do this as we slide into an echo chamber.
An irony is that I am writing this from home, with no one around me! That is because I believe in the benefit of hybrid working and there are times you need to shut yourself away to work on something. However, I do worry that many are not seeing that some of the long term career benefits may be lost if they continue to work predominantly from home.
Peter Cosgrove is Managing Director of Futurewise and advises companies on how to navigate the new world of work.