Big Tech Is Planning To Make Working From Home Permanent - Is This A Good Idea?
Working From Home Has Its Upsides & Downsides
Twitter, Facebook, Shopify – these are just a few examples of large companies that have indicated that even after the pandemic, their employees will continue to work from home.
But is working from home good for everyone, and every company?
Ellen MacEachen is a founder of the Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy and an expert in how work adapts to fast-changing economic, social, and technological environments. Professor MacEachen answers questions below.
What does working from home mean for those with disabilities? Does it make working easier?
For some people with physical disabilities, WFH levels the playing field. That is, because they are working at a distance, people who can’t simply hop on a bus or climb the front steps of a building now don’t need to navigate complex travel arrangements to get from A to B. Stigma often surrounds visible disabilities and so, depending on the nature of the condition, this might be reduced when a person is viewed only through a camera angle. WFH can provide more flexible working hours and this might work in the favour of people with pain conditions, allowing them to take a break when needed. Indeed, people with disabilities are disproportionately self-employed largely due to the control this gives them over their own schedule, which they need in order to manage their health conditions.
Mental health is another issue. The lack of social contact and isolation time can exacerbate some conditions.
Does working from home mean that employees are less engaged in the jobs?
Not necessarily. Managers will have to oversee workers in different ways when they work from home. WFH has, until now, been mainly the purview of artists and knowledge workers. For these groups, with project- and deadline-based work, productivity won’t be very affected whether or not people WFH. For other types of work, managerial oversight will have to be different than in-person meetings. For instance, managers might have daily morning video-meetings with the team so that they can all touch base and go over coordination of issues and targets for the day.
Is working from home sustainable for the long term? Can non-tech companies manage it?
Yes. I see us making a swing toward WFH across sectors. This will be particularly attractive to employers as a cost-saving approach (no more buildings to rent). It will also be attractive to many workers, seeming to offer a new level of freedom and eliminating commute times. However, WFH may not work for everyone. Consider lower income-earners who don’t have resources or space to have a good office set-up. Consider people in small apartments with family around, or people who have to work from the kitchen table, or people who live in areas with poor Wi-Fi connectivity.
(Questions below from KwNow )
While there may be upsides for both corporations and their employees in this shift to work from home, could there be downsides as well? And might companies pay an office rental fee to employees for this home office arrangement?
For some workers, working at home may seem like a bonus—no more time and costs of commuting, smaller budget needed for offices clothes and so on. But the employer is saving even more—no more office rent, furniture and office equipment purchase and maintenance. I don’t see businesses providing an office fund to workers. Rather, this will be used as a cost-saving opportunity for them. However, over time, employees may become disenchanted with working at home, especially if they live in small apartments or have distractions/disruptions of family members in the house, such as young children. For those without extra rooms, working from your kitchen table can become cumbersome over time. People like working from offices. The preference for working from an office is what we have seen in the huge trend to shared co-working spaces, such as We Work. Almost all of the people in co-working spaces could work from home but choose not to. With coworking spaces they find better office equipment, a social environment, and a space that delineates their work from their home life.
Humans are tribal by evolutionary design and social by nature. On the employee side of things we have the pursuit of happiness (ultimately, hopefully), and on the business side, the pursuit of corporate profits, and rightly so too, but not at the expense of those in the trenches. While the tech generation has boasted the importance of corporate culture, gender equality and team spirit, could larger corporate profits still be a major factor in their motivation?
Sure, having employees work at home creates a new opportunity for businesses to make even more money. This is definitely an attraction. But it also seems as if they are taking advantage of a COVID-crisis moment. At present, many workers will be in favour of working at home—it feels safer and easier. But over time they may start to miss the office a little, for reasons as mentioned above. Perhaps what will happen over time is some sort of a hybrid model where people work part of the time in an office.
Could the move away from the office have long term impacts on family life, socializing, productivity, worker happiness, or worker collaboration?
Yes, the social side of working life is hard to re-create across a Zoom lens. In social spaces where people are physically present, moments of co-construction of ideas and creative bursts can happen. So, it’s possible that, over time, totally working from home might have adverse effects on both trust and creativity. But there was a trend to non-in-person contact even before the pandemic. Many people spent much of their days in Zoom meetings already with their colleagues and partners around the world. So moving to totally at home means they are still in familiar professional territory. But what is missing is office interaction with colleagues and non-colleagues (really interesting people but in different roles who you wouldn’t normally work with on a project).
It might spur insularity. We’ll be in our own neighbourhoods and not interact with the diversity of people we’d encounter in an office. It would also create a digital divide: working from home means having to have good computer equipment, good internet, quiet work space. Not everyone can create those set-up conditions.
If we go back to pre-industrial revolution times, we see that there wasn’t a divide between work and home. Basically, people lived and worked on their land; the craftspeople lived above their shops. With the industrial revolution, we created a new separation between work and home. Maybe we’ll return to some sort of village life, and our neighbours will become a more important part of our social environment.
About Ellen MacEachen
Ellen MacEachen is a founder of the Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy and an expert in how work adapts to fast-changing economic, social, and technological environments.
The University of Waterloo has a number of experts available for comment on various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.