Yesterday while perusing my LinkedIn feed (for some reason I seem to trick myself into thinking this is more productive than Facebook), I came across a trending story:
“Working at home could save you thousands of dollars a year.”
The story came from Quartz’s new work site, Quartz at Work (which is phenomenal, by the way), in which the writer made a chart of all the ways she’s saved money by working from home—not going out for lunch, no commuting expenses, and homemade coffee.
The comments and social shares on the article all followed the same theme: “I love working from home!” “More companies need to allow this!” “The old office is dead!”
Given that most office jobs no longer require your physical presence (just secure Wi-Fi and a laptop), what’s the point of heading to an office? Why not stay at home in your jammies while you crush spreadsheets?
Who wouldn’t prefer that?
*Cough* Ahem… uhh, actually… *sheepishly raises hand* me.
I kind of hate working from home, and at times I feel like the only person in the 9-to-5 world who feels the same.
A typical conversation with a WFH evangelist, AKA Lauren our designer.
Saying you hate working from home can feel a bit like saying you think The Beatles are overrated—I know there are more of us out there, but we hide in the shadows or risk being ostracized. Work from home advocates seem to defend telecommuting with near religious fervor.
I don’t fault anyone who prefers working from home, but I do find it odd that the popular opinion seems to be that this will soon be the norm, or that it’s some sort of no-brainer decision for businesses. In reality, some companies have reversed their telecommuting policies recently.
While an occasional work from home day can be great, the idea that “working from home is the future” is entirely overblown—as are the supposed cost savings.
Working from Home Kills Communication
There’s nothing I hate more than waiting in line. Theme parks? Hard pass. Waiting in line to get into a club or bar? There are hundreds of others with no wait. The booze is just as good there.
Working from home (if you work on a team) essentially relegates you to permanently waiting in line every single time you have to communicate with someone.
It’s email hell.
At my office, I can simply look up and ask my coworker a question and get an answer immediately. We can grab a meeting room to hash out details of a project in 15 minutes. Trying to coordinate these things over email takes days.
In-person communication isn’t just faster, it’s often more efficient. Digital communication (and even phone or video conferencing) misses out on the body language of the person we’re interacting with, which can lead to all sorts of problems. A fascinating study out of UC San Diego and UC Irvine in 1997 recorded an airline crew in a flight simulator as they were thrown various problems to diagnose and resolve. What the researchers learned was that what was said mattered far less than how it was said.
In one telling example, the flight engineer notices rapidly dropping fuel levels in one tank. From The Atlantic:
“A transcript of the cockpit audio doesn’t reveal much communication at all. The flight engineer reports a “funny situation.” The pilot says “Hmmm.” The co-pilot says “Ohhhh.”
Match the audio with a video of the cockpit exchange and it’s clear that the pilots don’t need to say much to reach a shared understanding of the problem. That it’s a critical situation is underscored by body language: The flight engineer turns his body to face the others. That the fuel is very low is conveyed by jabbing his index finger at the fuel gauge. And a narrative of the steps he has already taken—no, the needle on the gauge isn’t stuck, and yes, he has already diverted fuel from engine one, to no avail—is enacted through a quick series of gestures at the instrument panel and punctuated by a few short utterances.
It is a model of collaborative efficiency, taking just 24 seconds. In the email world, the same exchange could easily involve several dozen messages—which, given the rapidly emptying fuel tank, is not ideal.”
Slow Your Roll on the Cost Savings
Maddi Salmon at Quartz makes a solid argument for working from home as a way to save money. No doubt, my bank account looks much better when I don’t go out for a $12 salad every Monday-Friday.
But it’s not like anyone is forcing me to buy lunch or coffee out every day.
Assuming that working at home saves you this expense seems presumptuous. When I spent 6 weeks working from home last year, it’s true that I did usually make my own lunch. The flipside of that, however, is that I got so stir crazy by 6PM that when my wife got home I would practically beg to go eat dinner out somewhere—at a significantly higher cost than take-out lunch.
We’re out there, lurking in the shadows of our offices.
There’s also an occupancy cost to staying home all day that shouldn’t be overlooked. Working at home means at least some extra costs incurred in power bills for heating and cooling. According to the Department of Energy, this typically accounts for more than half of a home’s energy use.
Aren’t We Already Isolated Enough?
Loneliness shortens lifespans on a similar scale to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. While we probably shouldn’t rely on our offices to be our social community, the reality is that, for a growing number of people, it’s the only social group we engage with. Americans as a whole have become less social, and with technology automating more aspects of our lives, it doesn’t seem like that trend is going to turn around.
As a report from the City Observatory puts it: “the amount of time we spend in the public realm has declined. While we have more leisure time, we spend more of it alone or isolated by technologies as diverse as the private automobile and personal headphones.”
While I understand the desire to work from the comfort of your own home, pushing ourselves to banish yet another social community seems like a bad decision.
There’s a work/life balance issue at play here too. I can only speak from my personal experience, but I’ve noticed that when I work at home, it becomes much more difficult to put that work away at the end of the day and focus on my family. Leaving a physical office makes this significantly easier.
Flexibility is Key
Here’s the rub: having the option to work from home when you need it is fantastic, and every business should offer their workforce that sort of trust and flexibility. Some days, it just makes more sense to log in remotely: taking care of a sick family member, waiting for my apartment’s maintenance guy to come fix our fridge, or even just to avoid unnecessary meetings when I have lots of heads-down work to take care of. And no one solution will (or should) work for everyone.
I just can’t imagine ever doing it anywhere close to full-time.
Of course, it all depends on the type of work you do and your personality. Those with jobs that require more heads down, focused work probably benefit from working at home. Folks who find social activity draining rather than energizing probably feel more comfortable at the home office. I respect that.
It’s the fervor that seems to bubble up every time the subject that comes up that bothers me. But to think that somehow in the near future, we’ll see anywhere close to a majority of companies opting for a fully-remote team seems laughable.