There’s always been a lot of debate around the idea of working from home (for those who can) vs going into the office every day. Some people strongly believe that working from home is a lot more productive while others (mostly managers) believe that to be nonsense. Having done both for many years, I think there are a number of variables to consider in this debate. In other words, it depends. So here are a few practical advantages and disadvantages of working from home.
- Advantages of working from home:
- Save time and money on travelling: this is obviously the most common argument for working from home. It means no longer having to waste valuable hours of your of your life sitting in traffic and wasting money on petrol and trains tickets. It means having extra time to work when under tight deadlines or using that time for leisure or spending it with your family.
- Save money on food: most companies do not offer free food in their offices and therefore people are often forced to buy their lunch at cafes and/or restaurants close to the office. Since a lot of these offices are located in affluent areas, the prices of food in those areas can be considerably higher than making your own food at home. Of course there is the option of packing your own lunch, but in the rush of getting to work or perhaps for the sake of convenience, many people still purchase their lunch at places close to the office.
- Fewer interruptions: when you’re at home you don’t have people unexpectedly dropping by your desk to ask you questions or starting up random conversations. Having less interruptions means it’s easier to focus and get into “the zone” when trying to work.
- Less background noise: most company offices nowadays are open plan generating a large amount of noise, with people chatting, telephones ringing off the hook all day and sometimes even having workers drilling and bashing down walls in the office. Again, working at home in a quiet environment allows you to get into the zone more easily.
- Removes the need to clock in: depending your job’s requirements to communicate with other people, working from home largely means having the freedom to decide on your own daily schedule and routine. As long as you get the job done and achieve the set out goals within the scheduled timelines nobody will really be bothered too much about what time you start and end your day. Early birds can wake up at 5am and finish their work early, while night owls can sleep in and work later at night.
- Saving time on running errands: since most people work in offices from 8-5pm, they inevitable have to schedule their errands during the weekend where possible. For example, going to the bank, renewing drivers’ licenses, sorting out bills with the municipal etc. Some of these errands can indeed be accomplished during the weekend, but since everyone is that during the weekend, it means spending your Saturdays mornings in long queues of people. Some errands cannot even be done during the weekend, meaning that you have to take time off from work during the week. When working from home, you can easily pop into the bank without having to sit in the queue. You can then easily make up that time at night or during the weekend. In the grand scheme of things you end up saving a lot of valuable time.
- Work in your preferred environment: working in a company office means being forced to use the provided company facilities whether you like them or not. Everyone gets the same kind of table and chair, gets told where to sit and and in some places people work there for decades before they get a seat by the window or a corner office. Furthermore, many offices have very little natural lighting, with workers being forced into cubicles where they never see the light of day. Air conditioning is another issue where everyone is forced to work at the same temperature; if it’s too hot or too cold for you, you need to become a politician to convince others to change the temperature. Working from home on the other hand, means having the freedom to chose which room you want to designate as your office, the lighting and temperature conditions as well as the desk and chair you prefer to use. The work environment and ergonomics are on your own terms.
- Reducing contact with people you don’t get along with at work: maybe you’re lucky and you work in one of those companies filled with only nice people and you all get along fabulously. However, for a lot of people that’s not always the case and unfortunately we sometimes have to endure having to work with people we don’t like. We’ve all known someone at some point in our careers that we didn’t get along with. Working from home gives you the ability to reduce the amount time spent with those people. This can go a long way towards improving and maintaining your mental health.
- No office politics, rumours and gossip to worry about: even if you do get along with people in the office, there will alway be rumours and gossip in any office that you work in. Working from home means not having to waste time dealing with any of it. It means no longer having to worry about rumours and gossip of people getting retrenched, promoted, rewarded, complimented or reprimanded. Instead you can use all your mental energy on your work, instead of wasting it on things that you cannot change.
- Living in larger properties: most company offices are located in central business districts in the heart of major cities. Due to the high demand for property in those areas, workers are often forced into paying exorbitant amounts of money to live in smaller properties closer to work. Being able to work from home on the other hand means being able to live in cheaper and larger properties further away from the city, without having to worry about additional time and costs of travel.
- Access to larger pools of talent: due to location and distance constraints most companies have had little choice but to hire people in areas that are in close proximity to their offices. Allowing people to work from home on the other hand, removes that constraint giving companies access to a larger pool of talent.
- Disadvantages of working from home:
- Cabin fever: many people who have never worked from home underestimate the notion of cabin fever. They don’t see it as something that could happen to them, but rather as something that happens to a few extroverts. Unfortunately that is not the case and can happen to almost anybody especially to those that live alone. Human beings are social creatures and are not meant to be living out their lives alone. There is a reason that solitary confinement is used a punishment for prisoners that misbehave in prisons.
- Temptations to not work: as mentioned above, there may very well be less interruptions from other people when working from home, but there is also something to be said about temptations. Interruptions are caused by other people, while the temptations at home are those that get you to do anything other than work. Since you don’t have anyone looking over your shoulder at home, it’s easy to be distracted and lose countless amounts of time browsing through your social networks, watching TV/Youtube, reading the news etc. All of these distractions will suck the energy out of you, leaving you unmotivated and struggling to concentrate.
- Home duties/responsibilities: there are numerous responsibilities you may have at home, which you wouldn’t normally have have to worry about during a regular work day at the office. These include washing your coffee cup and dishes, vacuum cleaning, doing the laundry etc. You may also be tempted to save costs by no longer paying for child care and instead taking care of the kids yourself since you’re at home the whole day. All of these responsibilities at home will strip away your ability to focus on your work.
- Additional costs at home: while you may be saving on travel costs, working from home doesn’t come without other costs. Your water and electricity bill will be higher since you don’t have your company paying for those costs any longer. Since most companies offer free coffee in their offices, this is yet another benefit saving you’ll have to forfeit when working from home.
- Lack of social pressure: many of us believe that we are self motivated and do not need any external pressure from others in order to motivate us to do our work i.e. I mean we’re adults after all. However the truth is that most people compare themselves with others and even if we don’t, having other people waiting on our results or pushing us to achieve our goals has an immense impact on our motivation levels. The fact that nobody in the history of the world has ever started a new company by themselves is testament to the fact that none of us are completely immune to the effects of social pressure.
- Lack of team cohesion and culture: there are numerous chat, project management and conference call tools available that we can use to facilitate communication between coworkers. However, the problem with remote correspondence is that it’s only ever done when it’s necessary i.e. conference calls and chats are only initiated when we need to discuss work related tasks. Some people may think that’s a good thing since it prevents wasting time on small-talk. Personally, I beg to differ. In this kind of remote work setup, you can work from home for years with other coworkers, and not ever share a single joke or know a single personal thing about them i.e. what their likes and dislikes are, what personal struggles they’re going through, what ticks them off or what motivates them. One might say that all of that is irrelevant but I don’t believe that because ultimately we are working with other humans not robots. Therefore it is important to understand that all people have emotions, worries and aspirations, none of which you will ever be aware of without the daily/weekly lunch breaks, smoke breaks and water cooler talks. All you have to do is watch any one of the hundreds of movies about team sports to understand the impact that team cohesion has on performance. The emotional connections and knowledge we have about or colleagues may be intangible but that does not mean that it has no impact on team performance. Managers should especially be concerned about these aspects when managing remote workers.
- Integrating new staff is difficult: some companies that switch over to a work from home policy may not immediately pick up the issues mentioned above especially related to team cohesion and this is because they already know each other within the team and the company’s culture. The problem arises when new people get hired and they struggle to adapt to the company culture, simply because company culture is almost invisible when working from home.
- Coaching junior staff is difficult: things get even worse when you have new junior staff that need coaching, training, and hand-holding. It becomes very difficult if not impossible to do all those things while working remotely.
- Barriers to asking for help and sharing or discussing ideas: while the most talented, experienced and skilled workers may feel that they don’t need help from anybody, the truth is that nobody is an island. At some point or another we all get stuck with some issues and it always helps when you can ask for help from someone that’s sitting a few meters away. Working from home imposes some barriers to that approach since you cannot see what the other person is busy with and therefore have to resort to scheduling a conference call. This somehow almost always feels a less casual. Brainstorming sessions will also not be the same through remote correspondence, that’s if they even happen at all. The truth is that most creative ideas do not come about in formalised meetings that are scheduled in one hour intervals, but rather in casual and impromptu chats.
- Transparency and visibility between colleagues is lost: when working in a company office setting, you can always see who is at work and whether they’re busy or not. Remote working does not offer that visibility i.e. you have no idea what your coworkers are busy with or if they’re busy at all. So when you ask someone for assistance or to attend a meeting and they tell you they can’t because they’re “so busy”, they could very well be busy watching TV and you won’t know any better. From my own personal experience I can tell you that the “busiest” people that never seem to have the time to help are always the ones that work from home, while the ones working at the office always somehow manage to find the time to help.
Keeping all of the above in mind, you may still be wondering whether a work from home policy should be put in place or not. In my personal opinion, I don’t think a work from home policy is a good idea in general. In a perfect world, I think every company should aim to get workers to come into the office at least 80% of the time i.e. allowing a one day per week to work from home which they can use at their discretion when they want to take advantage of any of the above mentioned benefits of working from home. Having said that, I do concede that it is not a perfect world, and exceptions should be made. For example you may have a valuable employee that lives three hours away from the office, and having that employee spend six hours of their day travelling would be ridiculous and you could end up losing that employee purely for that reason.
N.B. although I mentioned all of the above practical pros and cons of working from home I do want to offer a word of caution especially to managers that are weighing up their options. At the risk of sounding negative, I’m going to go out on limb here and say that a lot of the debates that happen are often superficial, with productivity and the like being brought into the debate as shallow excuses to circumvent other underlying issues within the office culture. I am not saying that this is always the case, but I do believe a some of the debates are not so much about productivity, travel time and costs, but rather about exercising control and being controlled i.e. some managers feel they lose control by allowing people to work from home while workers want to avoid being controlled by working from home. It is very sad when this happens as it can point to underlying issues that are never brought to light and never dealt with. Some of these issues can point to a depletion of trust between employees and managers or even abuse of power. Therefore I would advise that when an employee requests to be allowed to work from home, you should listen very carefully to their reasoning and determine whether their request does indeed have practical merit or not. If their reasoning sounds superficial you should dig a little deeper to determine the underlying reasons for them wanting to work from home. Could it be that the office equipment are inadequate, or perhaps they want to distance themselves from the work environment, another colleague, or even distance themselves from the manager? If that is the case, you should try your utmost best to improve whatever conditions they’re trying to run away from. Conversely, if you are very opposed to the the idea of work from home, you need to ask yourself whether your argument against it does indeed have real practical reasons for it, or whether your reasons are simply superficial excuses for not wanting to relinquish control over your employees. In other words, are you being a control freak?
In conclusion, my overall view on this topic is that managers should put in every effort to make the workplace as comfortable and as work friendly as possible while considering full-time work from home policies only as exceptions where there are valid practical reasons to justify it.