Imagine: Your office chair is your couch. Your commute is the length of your hallway. Your snack drawer is your entire pantry. Think it’s a dream? Not always.
Jobs that let you work from home, an arrangement known as telecommuting, are all the rage these days. According to a 2017 Gallup survey of more than 15,000 working adults, 43% of respondents said they spent at least some time in 2016 working remotely—four percentage points higher than in 2012. Not only are more people working from home, they’re also doing so more often: Of those surveyed, 31% worked from home four to five days per week, up from 24% in 2012.
“Working from home is more and more of a hot topic because of how tight the marketplace is,” says Dawn Fay, senior district president for Robert Half, a recruitment and staffing company. One winning way companies can compete for top talent is by luring would-be employees and retain existing ones with creature comforts. “Companies will do all sorts of things to entice employees, including offering flex time and work-from-home options,” says Fay. Indeed, according to a survey by Robert Half, 77% of workers said they’d be more likely to accept a job if it offered the ability to work from home at least some of the time.
Or course, while working from your couch (or bed) sounds great in theory, like everything else, it’s important to understand the pros and cons before you start picking out home office furniture. In fact, 81% of workers in the survey admit there are downsides to working remotely.
If you’re considering a telecommuting gig, here are some of the potential advantages and pitfalls to think about before you log in from home:
You are truly independent. It’s much more than just the allure of getting to work in your pajamas. Working from home means you’ll learn to rely on self-motivation, self-discipline, focus, and concentration.
“As you work through your career, those are really critical components for success,” says Fay. “It sounds simple and obvious but the time management and scheduling you have to do is an important skill to have.”
You can get more work done. As long as you’re not sneaking off to yoga class and hitting the mall, you can actually be more productive when working from home.
“For starters, the remote worker isn’t spending hours commuting,” says J.P. Giugliano, partner at talent acquisition firm WinterWyman. In fact, when Giugliano works remotely, he says it adds three hours of stress-free productivity to his day. Plus, you won’t have the occasional annoyances of office life: interruptions, loud co-workers, chatter, et cetera.
You’ll become a communications expert. When having a quick meeting in the break room isn’t possible, you have to get up to speed on what communication tools are available, says Fay. “From texting, Skyping, emailing, web meetings—out of necessity, you become very savvy in all of those.” In today’s digital world, knowing how to navigate these technologies makes you more marketable.
You may forget to clock out. While people might think working from home means doing less, the opposite might be true for diligent employees. “When you don’t have that separation of going to and from the office, your workday kind of blurs together into your home life,” says Fay. Feeling like you’re always “at work” could even lead to burnout.
You can feel out of the loop. You might not realize it until you’re not there, but there is a lot of casual collaboration that happens in an office, says Fay. Whether it’s picking up on the best practices of your colleagues or having an impromptu brainstorming session over lunch, it’s hard to replicate that from home.
You might not have full access to technology platforms. For the most part, cloud technology has made it easier than ever for remote workers to work from anywhere. However, Fay notes that there are situations in which data security or consumer protection concerns might prevent telecommuters from having full access.
Co-workers might accuse you of slacking. When you work from home and can’t get to a call or email right away, your co-workers may not give you as much leeway as they might if you were in the office. People might wonder if you’re taking it easy rather than pulling your weight. “Remember,” says Fay, “the onus is on the work-from-home individual to be overcommunicating what they’re doing and what they’re accomplishing.”
Tips for working from home
Don’t underestimate face time. Go to meetings, events, happy hours, trainings, and other outings as often as you can. “There are fewer such opportunities for spontaneous team building when working remotely,” says Giugliano, “so it is important to be proactive in finding ways to engage your co-workers.”
The next best thing? Pick up the phone to congratulate someone after a job well done, or the completion of a project rather than sending an impersonal email or IM, he adds.
Keep it professional. Even if you don’t have a dedicated office, try to set up a workspace and make it off limits to the rest of your household while you’re working. There’s nothing worse than being on an important work call only to have the doorbell ringing, the dog barking, and the kids screaming in the background, says Fay.
Be responsive. Get in the habit of sending a prompt reply whenever you get an email, even if it’s just to say, “Got it,” or, “I’ll get back to you by noon,” says Giugliano. And, do your best to be available for conference calls or other collaborations, even if you don’t have strict work hours.
Set specific touch points with your team. It’s smart to set a time each day/week for regular check-ins with your manager and/or your colleagues, says Fay. That will not only help you stay accountable, but it will also remind your office counterparts that you’re still an important part of the team.
What if you never had to return to work? Never had to return to work at the office, that is.
You’d be able to juggle kids on school holidays. You wouldn’t need to navigate traffic jams. Your employer might gain increased productivity, lower turnover and lower lease costs. But there are less obvious downsides.
In 2010, as part of building a case for the national broadband network, the Gillard government set a target for teleworking, suggesting the Australian economy could save between A$1.4 billion and A$1.9 billion a year if 10% of the workforce teleworked half the time.
Her successors have cooled on the idea. The web address www.telework.gov.au no longer works and reliable statistics for telework don’t exist.
Yet it’s attractive.
It seems like a grand idea…
Studies find working from home cuts commuting times and associated fatigue, transport congestion, and environmental impacts. Worldwide, an increasing number of employers are allowing it in order to attract and retain staff.
Employees value it as a way to maintain a work-life balance, in particular millennials.
And the office has become a nightmare for some. A tide of research finds many employees working in modern open-plan offices are so distracted by noise and interruptions they can’t concentrate.
In research on the workplace, employees frequently say they have to work from home to get work done.
Other research supports these findings. A two-year study using randomly assigned groups found a 13% productivity increase. It also found turnover decreased by 50% among those working at home and that they took shorter breaks and fewer sick days. And the company saved around US$2,000 (A$2,784) per employee on lease costs.
It’s enough to make employers allow working from home for everyone who can. But a key finding from the same study sounds a cautionary note.
More than half the volunteers that worked from home felt so isolated they changed their minds about wanting to do it all the time.
…until you try it
It’s not just isolation and loneliness.
Research shows working from home is far worse for team cohesion and innovation than working in the office.
In 2013 Yahoo chief executive Marissa Meyer banned working from home, saying that in order “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”
Since then, other large corporates including Bank of America and IBM have followed suit.
Contrary to what we might think, research shows that as the availability of laptops and other remote work devices increases, proximity has becoming more important.
One study showed that engineers who shared a physical office were 20% more likely to stay in touch digitally than those who worked remotely. Employees who were in the same office emailed four times as often to collaborate on shared projects than staff who weren’t in the office. The result, for these sorts of projects, was 32% faster project completion times.
Other research finds face to face interaction is essential for identifying opportunities for collaboration, innovation and developing relationships and networks.
Another study of home workers from 15 countries found 42% of remote workers had trouble sleeping, waking up repeatedly in the night, compared to only 29% who always worked in the office.
Some 41% of highly mobile workers felt stress “always or most of the time” compared to only 25% who always worked at the office.
Part of the stress is due to being tethered to mobile devices, often kept by beds, as well as the challenges of working from home. Locating colleagues to keep projects moving and trying to do conference calls surrounded by children, barking dogs or delivery people at the door is not as easy as it sounds.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, another study finds that, rather than being helpful, working from home is likely to interfere with family life.
And other studies suggest not being in the office regularly can hinder your career, resulting in being overlooked for projects or promotions. Out of sight can mean out of mind.
For some, what’s best will be some of both
There are strong, evidence-based reasons to both work from home and the office. So, what’s best?
One thing that can be said with certainty is that workers shouldn’t be forced to work from home because the office is too noisy for them to concentrate.
Employers need to ensure the workplace is designed effectively for the type of work that needs to be done, and also for the type of people who work there.
Access to flexible work, including working from home is important, but it needs to be balanced with the benefits of face to face interaction.
A halfway house is for employees working from home to have access to shared coworking spaces (working with workers from other firms and other industries) where they can get some of the benefits of being in the office without having to travel there.
Co-working spaces have been shown to reduce isolation, while providing employees with the benefits of access to a more diverse network and exposure to innovative ideas.