Careers

The Growing Strain In Our Relationship With Work From Home


Last week, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey created a stir on Twitter by announcing that the company’s employees now working at home could continue to do so forever. It’s fair to say that those of us new to the working from home phenomenon are still safely in our honeymoon period. Upon hearing Dorsey’s proclamation, many expressed their envy towards those twice lucky – first lucky enough to have a job at a cool place like Twitter working for a cool boss like Dorsey and now also lucky enough to have a professional career working in casual comfort.  

There is little doubt that the foreseeable future involves a continuation of today’s work from home arrangements. Beyond that horizon, there are many questions. When it becomes safe to return to work, what will employers require? Are they going to feel obligated to earn a return on the sunk costs associated with their real estate?   Equally important, what will employees prefer, and will the unemployment rate provide leverage as they assert that preference to employers?  

By the time these questions become front of mind, the honeymoon with work at home will be over. For many, the relationship with their home office is already beginning to fray. Before we declare that work from home become di rigueur, leaders must consider what the employer is no longer offering employees.

Employees asked about the prospect of working from home rarely provide a response that raises any doubt about the value of the practice. This optimism comes from the top of mind awareness we all have about the hassles of the workplace – it is easy to recall the frustration of time wasted while commuting and endless interruptions from annoying coworkers. Who wouldn’t embrace an opportunity to be free of such aggravations?

There is a reason, however, for the age-old expression, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” People are tiring of working from home because they realize that good things are gone. Before employers commit to institutionalizing broader work from home arrangements, it would be wise to calculate these costs. More importantly, leaders should develop strategies now for how to replace what employees are finding is gone.

What The At-Home Workforce Is Missing

First and most obviously, people are missing informal and spontaneous opportunities for social interaction. No longer does anyone ask a colleague at the next cube to go out and grab a cup of coffee. No longer can anyone hear gossip while standing huddled outside the building on a smoke break. No longer is it possible to duck into the next office to vent about something ridiculous expected from a boss. Our co-location at the workplace uniquely provided us these opportunities.  Can you share a cup of coffee with someone on Zoom? Sort of. That starts as a novelty and then quickly becomes old. Could you text message a vent to a colleague? That’s probably not such a good idea. Could you call up a fellow smoker to check-in and virtually ‘share a light?’ That might appear a bit creepy.

Second, employees are learning the value of a commute. Even a good day at work can be stressful. A bad day can leave a diligent employee feeling defeated. Though commuting itself sometimes feels like another skirmish in an all-day battle, it provides time that is valuable to employees as they switch gears from their role of workplace gladiator to that of parent or partner or friend. A commute of eight steps from the dining room ‘home office’ to join the family at the kitchen table does not much opportunity to decompress.

Third, work from home reminds employees how well their office provides them a place for things that encourage action, as well as freedom from those things that do not. Employees are learning that the distractions experienced while working from home are no less potent than those at the office. For those who are amateurs at this practice, the lure of a chance to see if anything new has appeared in the refrigerator and the temptation to take just a short break to push the laundry ahead are only two of the many newfound competitors for attention. 

Fourth, employees who work from home learn to appreciate how the workplace offers an environment where – at least in theory – every person shares the goal of moving the organization closer to accomplishing its mission. There is a unity of purpose and an alignment of effort. When working from home, this is hardly the case. Roommates and family members do not share your dedication to your employer’s cause and will likely function more as competitors for scarce resources. School children now learning from home will be chewing up Internet bandwidth and draining toner cartridges. Every time an employee pops their head out to see if it is safe to leave the confines of whatever they are calling a home office, they risk being tasked with work to serve someone else’s conflicting goal – the trash didn’t get put out last night, but it could be put out now, for example.

Finally, the most challenging aspect of an extended work-from-home arrangement concerns an employee’s understanding of how to remain influential in a dispersed workforce. In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, ‘Hamilton,’ the titular character shares his desire to be ‘in the room where it happens.’ When we all come together under one roof to work, we know where to find that room. In the virtual workplace, it may not be so clear. And further, does anyone understand what it takes to be influential if the room is instead a multi-box Zoom call? The inability to be in the room – or to do well once there – are elements employees will miss as they are gone.  Missing them and the associated opportunities for influence can have a lasting impact on the arc of a career.

When a relationship ends, not everyone quickly realizes what a good thing it was that just got away. That will likely be true when it comes to working from home, also. Not everyone will miss the workplace, and the luster of its substitute will last longer for some than for others. However, as the pandemic continues to keep us at home, increasing numbers of employees will feel a loss. That sense of loss will be disconcerting for employees and will make it more challenging for them to be successful while toiling in a space designed for other purposes.



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