Why Work-From-Home Might Not Work: The Looming Risk For Employers

Jon Picoult

The drawbacks of working from home

Practically overnight, the Covid-19 pandemic triggered a monumental shift in how people work.  Corporate offices were out; home offices were in.  Many companies were pleasantly surprised how smoothly that transition went, observing no adverse impact on productivity, no major impediments to staff getting their jobs done.

Given the apparent favorable results of this pandemic-imposed work-from-home (WFH) experiment, some companies think they’ve seen the future of work, and they’ve begun realigning their operations accordingly.

Back in May, Nationwide Insurance announced the permanent closure of five corporate offices, shifting the majority of employees in those sites to a work-from-home model.  Facebook is planning to have half of its employees work from home permanently.  Other firms are also following suit.

Companies are no doubt salivating at the cost savings that would come with having more people work from home.  All kinds of overhead expenses associated with centralized offices would disappear:  rent, utilities, cleaning services, food services, building maintenance and groundskeeping.

However, in their zeal to capture these savings and shift to a decentralized workplace, companies may be overlooking some dark clouds on the horizon.

Sure, organizations are cognizant of the collaboration challenges that come with a work-from-home model.  They can convince themselves, though, that it’s nothing a technology tapestry of Zoom, Slack and other tools couldn’t overcome.

The true blind spot for companies, however, may be in their belief that employees prefer working from home.

There’s no question there are many advantages to that model, as newly remote staff can attest:  Commutes measured in steps rather than miles, fewer interruptions from coworkers passing by, more time to spend with family.

However, the novelty of working from home, and employees’ elation with their newfound “freedom” from the traditional office, may soon wear off.

Play the work-from-home movie out a few frames and you’re likely to find a whole subset of the population who will have trouble doing it long-term.  That’s because, after the initial WFH honeymoon, many employees will struggle with the arrangement.  They’ll have trouble figuring out how to separate work from home, when work is at home.

That struggle can be invisible to the employer, because it manifests itself in a way that’s favorable to the company (at least in the short-term).  Employees seemingly become more productive – not necessarily because they’re more efficient, but because they’re working longer, as the line between personal and professional life blurs.

The start of the workday creeps earlier; the end edges later.  The demarcation between work and home disappears, accelerating a shift that began when digital devices created an “always-on-duty” workplace culture.

Executives like that work-from-home productivity boost.  Even more, they like the economics of it, since – when made permanent – it’s accompanied by a reduction in office overhead.

Those economics may not look as good long-term, however.

Employees who are effectively given no alternative but to work from home may feel compelled to deselect from that arrangement.  They’ll instead seek employment with firms offering a traditional work environment, where it’s easier to compartmentalize one’s personal and professional lives.  The costs of such turnover can be profound, not just in hiring and training, but also in terms of the health of the customer relationships those employees oversee.

Avoiding that outcome requires understanding that employees are not a homogenous group. They have distinct needs, wants, and work habits – all of which underscores the importance of offering flexibility and choice in work arrangements.

Working from home won’t work for everyone.  Organizations would be wise to recognize that before they rush into dismantling their physical offices.  Because when you shut the door on those offices, you might also be shutting the door on the good, quality talent that wants to work in them.

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