Questioning the great work from home experiment

18 months ago everyone who worked in an office was sent home, and told “work from home.” Suddenly even the most anti-work from home companies and bosses had to accept it. Even the slowest, bureaucratic, IT departments had to support remote working.

In many ways it has been a great experiment – an experiment that is judged a success because people have been more productive than expected. And look… the western economies are still here. Indeed, some businesses have boomed.

But, I don’t think that was the great experiment. To my mind the great experiment starts now – now that people are getting the option to work in the office or work from home, now that big-bad-managers can lean on people to go into the office and start using “presenteeism” again.

There are a few of points about the great work from home which I think are generally missed. It is because these points no longer apply which makes me thing now is the true experiment. I’ve also got a bunch of concerns, I’m not convinced that surviving the last 18 months by working-from-home is the way we should carry on.

First, the great work-from-home was egalitarian: it wasn’t a privilege or a punishment. Nor was it self-selecting: whether you wanted to or not you did it.

Second, everyone had to do it so everything was online. There were no meetings with some people in one room and others hanging on the end of a telephone, the kitchen was no longer a place for side chats and the smokers couldn’t have their own meetings outside the back door.

Third there was no end date: there was no option to say “we’ll decide it when we are all in the office.”

Finally, last but not least: at least initially it was existing people and teams so relationships and social-capital already existed People were used to working together already.

Bringing in new people, “onboarding” and “enculturing” is always hard, its a lot harder online – and being honest, one of the things I find hardest is finding my way into a new team when everything is online.

As work-from-home has gone on teams have had to learn to recruit and incorporate new people online.

Now, as people drift back to the office – at different paces in different places – these points don’t hold. Now being in the office or not is often a choice, it is no longer whole teams so those side conversations are back.

To my mind this is an even bigger experiment than the great work-from-home; and I think it is going to prove more difficult for companies and teams to navigate.

Personally, I’m really lucky, I’ve had my office in my home for years so I’m all set up for it. But I’m sick of working in the same place day-after-day for months on end. While I’m sure many people never want to see an office again I think there will be many others who are keen to go back to the office.

Next, I have a few fears about the extended remote working model. First off is mental health: without an office, without the journey to and from the office, without the change of clothes that all involves there is less separation between work and home. Without dividing lines that means work impinges on home time and it is difficult to escape work stress.

Second, online working is far more dependent on the written form. That means that those of us who struggle with the written form are at a disadvantage.

Yes I know I’m a bad example, I write too much. But look at all my grammatical and spelling foibles – I’m dyslexic. I’ve learned to be good at writing but really I’d rather be talking.

As e-mail replaces the telephone, Slack replaces the talking across the desk, WhatsApp replaces coffee conversations those of us who struggle with writing are disadvantaged.

Next, I’m concerned for younger people, those who only entered the work force recently. How are they to learn about their job? How are they to learn work culture, let along specific company culture if there is no office?

And most those same people are often in a more difficult position. They are stilling with their parents in their childhood bedroom, or they are living in a house share with problematic internet. In short, younger people need the office more and they need older people as role models and teachers.

Finally, I feel a lot of technology people – programmers specifically – are very keen to push back on any suggestion that face-to-face communication, and co-location, has any advantages. It seems very acceptable to say “We can do everything online, there is no difference.”

I beg to differ. If only because without body language, without facial expressions, without seeing how people react then communication is less – the old “80% of communication is non-verbal” idea. You can do a lot online, but you can also do a lot in person.

Unfortunately I don’t see this debate. I don’t see people discussing “what is best done online” and “what is best done in person.” I see my fellow digital workers being very quick to push back on anyone that questions online working.

Perhaps it’s me, but I feel the technology community is so anti-office work that I have hesitated even to voice these concerns. Anyone else share these views? Or am I persona non-grata?

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3 thoughts on “Questioning the great work from home experiment”

  1. For years, I’ve been used to wake up in the morning to “go to work”. Then come back and have time for me or my family.
    The mix of the two is not a good thing for me: lack of focus, no defined periods for work or private life.
    Moreover, in recent years most companies have invested to build very great offices to work in, some are like luxury hotels in terms of work commodities.
    They are also built to facilitate the mixing between different employees, between managers and developers for instance, some have very cool meeting rooms of coffee rooms….
    I don’t find all that at home.
    Moreover, in most online conferences or discussions, people turn off their cameras. So the modern online conferencing systems ar not so helpful….
    At least when people are in the same meeting room, we can see the persones that are currently doing something else on their computer…

  2. Thank you for saying these things. The online work discussion is pretty shallow and misses nuances like those you bring out. For me, I’m a much better writer than I am a speaker so that works for me. But like you, I’ve found onboarding to be 1,000% harder over Zoom — I started a new job in January.

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