Work From Home vs. Return to Office: The Final Showdown

two kangaroos fighting

Arun Clarke | unsplash

Over the last decade, a new debate emerged around the benefits and viability of remote work. Merit aside, the discussion occurred mostly on the fringes of mainstream because conventional wisdom was that in-person work was much more efficient. But like all great revolutions, a spark is always needed to push the critical mass over the edge. For this debate, COVID-19 was that spark.

Due to this deadly pandemic, most organizations established remote work policies and procedures for their non-essential employees — at least for a few months during the highest spikes of the crises. This new model essentially forced the largest social experiment around the viability of remote work. Like all great experiments, the results have been mixed and open to interpretation.

To understand where we are in this debate, we should first look at the generational evolution our workforce underwent.

generational evolution

Boomers and Pre-Boomers: Life-Timers (Pre-1970)

Up until 1970, the workforce was by and large rooted in maximum loyalty and minimum benefits. Although healthcare benefits have been added incrementally (but slowly) throughout the 20th century, 401K wasn’t introduced until 1978. The American worker was loyal to one company for 40 years until retirement and despite work condition improvements and advocate groups like unions, there was little reward for that loyalty.

Gen X: Looking for the Best Opportunity (1980-2000)

This generation was more self-aware of their value and used that to negotiate higher titles and better salaries. When employers were stuck in the pre-1970 mentality and didn’t negotiate, this generation left for greener pastures. This very radical but important change in the workforce/employer dynamic (slightly) shifted the power towards the employees.

Related Article: How Technology Can Help Bridge Generational Divides

Millennials: Free Snacks and Beanbags (2000-2020)

The Dot Com era brought a new type of reward for the average workforce. It was no longer just about salary and benefits, it was free lunches and snacks, ping pong tables, sleep pods and PlayStations. Employers tried to make the work environment “fun” and “comfortable” and used that as a hook to hire and retain top talent.

Gen Z: The New Normal (Post-2020)

Historically, employers were focused on increased rewards but still gave little freedom or trust to the workforce. Prior to 2020, it was all about clocking in and clocking out (even if there wasn’t a physical punch card). Managers are taught to monitor their team’s work hours, not just performance. To a large extent, you can’t fault employers because most work environments require face to face meetings and group activities that might not be as effective without everyone being there. However, even prior to the pandemic, a movement was underway towards location freedom where some employees argued they could effectively do (at least) most of their jobs remotely. The argument focused on several elements, including efficiency, schedule, comfort and freedom.

  1. Efficiency: There is some truth to the fact that joining meetings or conversations from your home office is much more efficient than moving from conference room to conference room. Making your food in the kitchen 20 feet away without having to pack a lunch or take an hour break just to walk to a lunch truck seems much more efficient as well.
  2. Schedule: Recent data shows an average commute time of half an hour a day, with big cities being much higher. Some commuters clocking more than an hour or two, saving that transit time and allowing employees to get that time back while still showing up for work punctually is a monumental benefit.
  3. Comfort: As someone who has worked from home for the last 18 months, I can emphatically state how comfortable it is for me to wake up, brush my teeth then hop on my laptop in joggers and a t-shirt. This is so much more comfortable than my morning routine a couple of years ago. Everyone enjoys taking a meeting on the couch, maybe going for a walk between calls or even taking a power nap break to come back refreshed and ready to work.
  4. Freedom: All those factors spell truth to the argument for remote work, but none stronger than having your employer trust you to wield said freedom. Trust that the workforce are responsible stewards of the job, not teenagers just waiting for the right moment to sneak out of the house.

Related Article: Working From Home May Be Painful, But It’s Making the Future of Work Better

What’s Gone Right With Working From Home?

Putting the cause of the mass experiment aside, working from home has had promising results. For one, productivity has gone up from 2019, at some points in double digits. Also, surely no one can deny the impact this productivity has had on the economy, even as growth dipped in 2020. 2021 has shown three times the growth of 2019. Analogously, even as hiring slowed down in 2020, there are more job openings now than ever (over 25% more than 2019). Plenty of statistical data as well as anecdotal evidence shows remote work had a positive impact on the workforce and their productivity. Not to mention, companies saved on the costs of maintaining a workplace — something that can be enticing if remote work is seen as a long-term solution.

What’s Gone Wrong?

Even as seemingly everything has gone right, concerns remain — some real, some overblown. One that stoked fear in the hearts of employers already reluctant to embrace remote work were the reports of employees holding multiple jobs because no one can really check. Aside from the impossibility of calculating how many people are “secretly” working multiple jobs, there isn’t any evidence to suggest this is a widespread occurrence.

A common complaint since the beginning of working remote is zoom fatigue. When replacing all in-person conversations and meetings with zoom, it has been known to wear out even the strongest amongst us.

Additionally, when you live and work in the same place, it becomes more difficult to separate the two. Sometimes I sit on my laptop to check the news and without realizing it, I find myself doing work. A few weeks ago, my 11-year-old asked me to tell him when I am done working so we could play catch. What’s remarkable about that was it happened on a Sunday, but I was in my home office typing away on my laptop. I can’t remember if it was work related or not — and that’s part of the problem. My son associates my home office with work, regardless of when I am in it or if I am doing actual work or not.

A final drawback of working remote has been the loss of in-person meetings and collaboration. With all the benefits and freedoms remote provides, sitting in the same room as your colleagues to work out a problem or a difficult task still has a lot of value.

Related Article: Will Flexibility Survive the Return to the Workplace?

What Should the Future Workplace Look Like?

In a problem this complicated, the answer always seems equally complicated — but that’s not the case here. The answer to this conundrum is so clear that sometimes I wonder if there are even two sides to this argument. However, for the sake of clarity, here is what I think employers should do:

what employers should do

  1. Give people a choice: 70% of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65% are craving more in-person time with their teams. That is a resounding argument for leaving the decision to each employee to decide. Yes, there will be cheats and yes there will be inefficiencies, but on a long enough timeline people are responsible and care about their success.
  2. Judge on impact: To ensure fairness and promote productivity, employers should judge employees by their impact, not effort or process. It shouldn’t matter if someone is working more, what should matter is their impact to the organization. This can be tracked easily if every manager follows a framework like “Objectives and key results” (OKR) or something similar. This type of framework attaches measurable goals and outcomes for each person, allowing for an easier way to define “impact.”
  3. Invest where they work: Transform offices to shared stations, which can decrease the cost significantly. Provide each employee with the means of affording home offices with those office space savings. Forty-two percent of employees say they lack essential office supplies at home, and one in 10 lack adequate internet connections to do their job.
  4. Make face-to-face fun again: To overcome the negative impact of remote work, find ways to help the team build rapport by organizing optional in-person events, happy hours, dinners, lunches, etc. If people see a benefit from attending an event, they will often do that. However, if those events are mandatory, employees will automatically place low intrinsic value on them — so avoid that whenever possible.
  5. Restore work-life balance: Encourage employees to respect off hours (that may vary per organization) and separate their home life from their work life by logging off and staying off. Maybe the next time my son sees me at my desk, he wouldn’t hesitate to interrupt me because my time belongs to him more than anyone else.

Dr. Ali Alkhafaji is a technology leader and evangelist with 20 years of industry experience.

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