I can still vividly remember the embarrassment of a work call from home, circa 2010, when my youngest child squawked and the client asked if I had a parrot. I’d never felt so unprofessional. Fast forward to 2017 when the still-hysterically funny viral video of a toddler and baby busting into their dad’s home office during a serious BBC interview was good for a lot of laughs and a sympathetic nod from all of us work-from-homers. Those days feel like a different lifetime since COVID-19 forced millions to rethink in-person office work. We now welcome the occasional cat cameo, and we don’t blink an eye when a dog starts barking. “You’re on mute” has become part of our shared lexicon. And what once was a pipedream to many (stay in sweatpants all day! Never have to pack a sad office lunch!) became the norm.
Now, as we learn to live with an ongoing pandemic, some employers are expecting workers to return to the office. But are companies bringing back workers in a smart way? Do at-home employees receive the same opportunities for career advancement? What are the pros and cons of being office based? With so much to consider, it’s time to rethink the future of work.
DO EMPLOYEES WANT TO RETURN? HUMAN BEHAVIOR SAYS YES (EVENTUALLY)
First, do remote employees want to return to work? Legitimate health concerns, childcare obligations, and perhaps those sweatpants, have some workers resisting. According to a
McKinsey study, 29% of people say they are likely to switch jobs if their employers require them to work exclusively onsite. But people will want to return to the office eventually – and when it is safe to do so, according to Dan Ariely, Duke University behavioral economics and psychology professor. He recommends employers offer a trial period for a month or two, with shortened work weeks, after which employees can decide to work in-person more days. Our social nature, he believes, will kick in once we get past the difficult step of going back. In times of quarantine and isolation, “I think we forget the joys we get from other people,” Ariely says. Most importantly, companies should present clear options for returning to work and allow employees to control their own choices.
WHEN IS IN-PERSON OFFICE WORK NECESSARY OR BETTER?
Everyone who’s experienced Zoom fatigue knows the struggle to keep spirits up when glued to tech all day. Human interaction – not on a screen – boosts us up. The Forbes article, “The Real Reason for Going Back to The Office (Hint: It’s Not for Your Employer)” lays out the many intangible incentives:
- Belonging and Social Identity. We crave the connections that arise from being in the trenches, solving problems together and celebrating shared wins.
- Health and Wellbeing. Research has demonstrated that lack of face-to-face time increases disease and reduces lifespans.
- Smarts and Performance. MIT found that people in close physical proximity are three times as collaborative and see greater output in academic papers and patents.
- Career Development, Relationships and Learning. People learn through watching other people.
According to NOBL Academy, in-person work is beneficial when two or more of the following conditions are met: the work is 1. Novel (the task is new or there’s not an established process), 2. Experiential (when an immersive experience is more effective) or 3. Collaborative (such as trainings/onboardings, high stakes teaching moments, project kickoffs, product launches, or cultural moments like parties and retreats that focus on social bonding and network building). Conversely, if the task at hand means everyone will be staring at individual screens, one can do that from home.
Employees shouldn’t underestimate what they can gain by coming back—and by giving back to the community – but managers should be selective about when they require employee face time.
CAN EMPLOYEES STILL ADVANCE THEIR CAREERS WHEN WORKING FROM HOME?
The adage “out of sight, out of mind” might be too true when it comes to remote work. Being in office provides opportunities to build your social capital, and to be on the radar of leaders who might be looking to expand teams or promote talent. Remote workers might receive fewer mentorship opportunities and miss out on informal meetings and conversations. Even before the pandemic, remote workers were often doing double the overtime but were less likely to be promoted or receive a bonus.
However, many employees who prefer to work remote accept these tradeoffs for non-monetary benefits like being able to live closer to friends and family or in an area with a lower cost of living.
Having a successful career – and remaining remote – are not mutually exclusive, but workers who choose to stay home need to be proactive: connect regularly and often with mentors, be intentional about developing interpersonal connections inside and outside the team and organization, get face time whenever possible, gain experience and discuss opportunities with a supervisor. Career advancement might be more of a challenge for remote workers, but it’s absolutely possible.
WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS DO TO PROVIDE EQUITABLE OPPORTUNITIES TO ALL EMPLOYEES?
Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University professor of economics, has cautioned against letting employees pick their own work-from-home days, warning it could lead to a “diversity crisis,” long-term disparities in career advancement if, for instance, women with young children work from home four days a week while single young men can bond with the manager by having a full-time office presence.
A hybrid model – where some employees work in office and others remotely – will be more successful if employers take this time to reshape what office life can be, setting clear expectations and keeping lines of communication open. Ariely suggests employers coordinate days that certain team members meet in person. If only half the team is together, the half that’s dialing in might feel like second-class citizens. And always, he says, provide clear communication and plans A and B because uncertainty and unknowns (like not knowing when the office is reopening, or what safety protocols will be) can cause anxiety.
REDEFINING WHAT THE FUTURE OF WORK CAN BE
Are we missing an opportunity to redefine the future of work? There’s been a big power dynamic shift toward the employee, with stronger demands and opinions. Companies not being smart about shaping this future will lose out. Now is the time to be rethink and reshape the future of work because a happier, healthier organization is a benefit to everyone.