The COVID-19 pandemic suddenly forced a massive working-from-home (WFH) experiment onto the business world, prompting thousands of business owners to grapple with the question of how permanent to make the emergency arrangements.
Should you call everyone back to the office now that the second wave is over, or embrace working from home as the new way of doing things? Or perhaps work out a hybrid system that allows for some days at home, and some at work?
Businesses, and jobs within businesses, differ too much for a one-size-fits-all solution. Frontline retail staff or factory-floor workers cannot work from home, but so many admin and salespeople can – and have done so in the last year. But that is not the only source of ambivalence over the question. Keep in mind that ever since the start of the information technology revolution, long before COVID-19, businesses have been experimenting with remote work. It has mostly happened in waves, the first one shortly after the take-up of the internet in the 90s. The early pioneers mostly came scurrying back to the office due to frustrations with slow technology, among other things.
Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages to working from home that each business owner will have to weigh up carefully – and not just once. Changes in technology and work culture will require business owners to reconsider the question regularly.
Here is a list of the most current advantages and disadvantages of allowing your staff to work from home.
The advantages of working from home
Increased productivity: Research shows a clear increase in productivity of employees who are allowed to work from home, but it is still unclear if this is a truly permanent effect. Does the initial productivity boost of working from home last or does it revert to the mean over time? Some report increased productivity when they move back to the office again, suggesting that the advantage is to be found in the change of scenery rather than one specific place.
A much clearer advantage is increased productivity and discipline of managers. When employees work from home, supervisors are forced to set up clear outputs against which employees’ work can be measured at a distance. Supervisors focus less on relatively insignificant measures such as time spent at the office and appearances, and are forced to devise true measures of employee output.
Freer employees: For the vast majority of people having to commute is stressful and a waste of time. Just taking away the need to drive into work can make a significant difference in the lives of employees. When they work from home, employees are free to set their own level of dress and formality, and their work can be interspersed with meaningful home activities. The fact that they are measured on their true output rather than appearances and social interactions at the office can add meaning to their work.
Cost savings: Working from home can lead to some cost savings in office rental and infrastructure, although you would still have to be sure to provide for team-building facilities for the times that you will be bringing your team together physically. The cost saving is less with a hybrid system where employees are allowed to work at home on some days, as their workstations have to be maintained for the days that they come in to work. One option is to have workstations that are not allocated to a specific employee, but shared whenever.
Wider recruitment pool: If you don’t allow working from home at your business, you are limited to employing people from your immediate geographical vicinity, or you face the considerable hurdle of having to convince potential employees to relocate. You may also loose employees whose spouse is transferred to a different city. Remote working does away with most of these hurdles. Theoretically, you can employ talent from anywhere around the world.
The disadvantages of working from home
Team building and social capital: The most serious disadvantage of remote working is the difficulties that it presents to team building, collaboration, collegiality and loyalty. Humans are intensely social, and the level of camaraderie that colleagues build simply by working side by side should not be underestimated. It is by no means clear yet at what rate remote working eats into the social capital that a workplace has built up over the years.
The move to working from home during COVID-19 does not offer much insight into the question yet because not enough time has passed. What happens to the induction and absorption of new team members into a company under remote-working conditions? Do they remain just as engaged and motivated as the generation who have always worked together in a shared office?
There is no doubt, however, that countless experiments have got under way since the pandemic to find ways of building teams remotely, ranging from virtual social gatherings to occasional physical gatherings.
Communication difficulties: Face-to-face communication can be super-efficient. The combination of speech and physical gestures can convey an enormous amount. Explaining things by text messages is time consuming and clumsy by comparison, although well timed video calls can go some way towards mitigating this disadvantage.
Extra expenses: Office space has to be created at home and computer and internet infrastructure needs to be brought up to a certain standard to enable efficient remote work. Some employees may not mind paying for such infrastructure themselves in return for the freedom of working from home, but for others it can become a sticking point. The protection of a business’s data becomes more difficult and expensive if dozens of company laptops are linked to the internet from various public spaces such as coffee shops.
Isolation, loneliness and distraction: Working from home does not suit all personalities. Some people find that going into work provides a healthy separation of work life from home life. Some like the collegiality of working in the same office as others and the structure and discipline that office life can provide. At the same time, the home can be full of distractions, especially for those with small children. Any work-from-home system will have to take these problems into account.
Clearly, setting up a work-from-home policy is no simple affair. There are many factors to take into account, some that will be very specific to your own business. But business owners who are willing to try various options, even if it is on a small scale, and to keep abreast of the latest research, will find that they are part of an exciting movement of finding better ways to work.