Now that the pandemic lockdowns are behind us many employers are insisting their employees return to the office. The rationale for this decision ranges from the need for employees to re-connect with their colleagues to a desire by employers to routinely monitor and supervise staff. Unfortunately, the ability to work from home has now been deeply ingrained into the corporate culture, routine and mindset of many individuals. Working from home is now considered almost a right. In light of this, do employers have any prospects of making this new directive stick?
A Bit of History
My first exposure to the concept of work from home came about thirty years ago. I was working in the Ontario government at the time, and the idea was being piloted by a number of departments in the federal government. I remember attending a conference in Toronto at which several guest speakers extolled the merits and virtues of what was then a novel concept.
The advantages of work from home arrangements were discussed at large by attendees. These included the following:
- Reduced transportation costs – employees working from home do not have to spend significant amounts of time commuting, or pay to travel to the office. Depending on where employees live this could equate to several hundreds of dollars per month.
- Environmental benefits – employees who aren’t travelling to the office also aren’t driving personal vehicles. This results in not only less traffic congestion but less pollution.
- Savings for employees – reduced transportation expenses can translates into higher disposable income for workers.
- Savings for employers – not having employees working in a physical office setting can mean that companies can reduce their real estate needs and related costs (e.g. heating; air conditioning; etc.).
- Better work life balance – employees who are not required to travel to work can spend more time with their families.
- Improved job performance – there have been some studies that suggest employees who work virtually are more engaged, and in some cases, may actually work longer.
- Enhanced employee morale – employees who avoid commuting are considered by some to be less stressed, and therefore, happier. Workers can also attend to personal and family needs without having to take time off from work.
Conversely, while the idea was considered to have merit, some reflected on the potential negative consequences if this concept ever gained traction:
- Unsupervised employees will just “goof off” – there is an assumption by many that employees working from home are somehow unproductive. This line of argument suggests that employees require routine direction and guidance, and if left to manage themselves they will become idle.
- Difficulties in communication – some contend that working from home impedes communication between employees and with customers. This theory implies that face-to-face, in person communication is the most effective medium through which to engage with others.
- Problems with work coordination – underlying this argument is a belief that routine, in person interaction between employees is a necessary prerequisite for effective coordination of work activities and projects.
- Double standards – there are some who suggest that employees working from home are treated differentially from those who work in person. This line of argument suggests that those who are in the office are expected to do more and shoulder additional work.
- Declining productivity – the reasoning behind this argument is that those working from home are somehow less productive and less engaged in work.
Between 1994 and 2015 I wrote three Work From Home policies. While I don’t consider myself an expert on the subject, I have had an opportunity to reflect on its application, use and applicability across three different organizations.
First, working from home is not a panacea for every workplace problem. Employers who think that allowing employees to work from home will magically transform disgruntled staff into happy ones are every bit as misguided as those who believe that working from home will somehow make them fall in love with their jobs. Fact is, neither argument is true.
Second, work from home arrangements need to be carefully evaluated before being implemented. A clear policy with applicable standards, guidelines and expectations needs to be developed before just allowing employees to outside the office. Both employees and employers need to be clear around when it occurs, who pays for what, the nature of deliverables, and when in person meetings may be required.
Third, working from home is not for everyone. New employees, persons with performance issues, or those involved in on site physical production work, likely aren’t good candidates for working from home. In some cases this is only short term, and in others the concept simply doesn’t apply.
A Personal Reflection
Twice in my life I’ve been truly grateful for the chance to work from home.
The first occurred after my father passed away. My mother didn’t drive, and had significant medical and mobility problems. She had great difficulty getting to doctor’s appointments. Being able to selectively work from home on days that coincided with her appointments allowed me to transport her and provide her with personal support. Had I not been provided with this option then likely my vacation and personal leave days would have been exhausted on caregiver activities. Allowing me to work from home, and then starting work earlier and working later to compensate for time used, was a huge benefit.
The second occurred following two rounds of foot surgery in 2013. I was off work for three months each time. Walking was painful, especially with pins in several toes. Commuting to work by bus and train would have been a nightmare. If I could not have worked from home then I would have been on short term disability, and work would have remained incomplete or been delegated to other staff. The ability to work from home meant my employer didn’t have to hire a backfill employee. In reflection, nothing was incomplete, and despite my operation the impact upon my department was minimal.
A Final Thought….
I am a strong proponent of working from home. I have seen and lived the experience, and I have also derived the benefits. I know that when properly crafted it can and does work. That being said, there is one significant and emerging drawback to which employees should be aware when considering whether to opt for it.
As the workplace returns to something approaching normal, there is an increasing labour shortage. What is also clear is that many employers will be facing a huge exodus in the next few years of older workers. It isn’t just the tail end of the Baby Boomer Generation that will be leaving. Many Gen X employees are now “packing it in”.
Employers will be looking to fill many senior management positions. When identifying talent, many will be evaluating their existing personnel. To coin an old axiom, those who are “out of sight” are sadly, often, “out of mind”, or to put it more bluntly, out of consideration for promotion. Visibility is often conflated with executive presence and promotability. Those who are on site are still considered more engaged, more dedicated, and ergo, more deserving of promotion.
Life is all about choices. If working from home is a priority then understanding some of the potential consequences is key to making an informed decision.