Junk food is seductive. It’s brightly colored. It tastes great. It’s highly addictive (bet you can’t eat just one!) But it’s ultimately not good for you if overdone. I am increasingly convinced that working from home is the junk food of the work environment.
It’s clear that people enjoy working from home. They claim that they are more productive and more comfortable. They cherish the time that they would have spent commuting to the office. They claim that they are less distracted. But while WFH may be enjoyable in the short term and the results may seem OK, I am convinced that there are long term disadvantages for both the employee and the businesses.
With remote work, as with junk food, moderation is the best course of action– a WFH diet. It’s time to take off your sweat pants, put on your shoes and get back to the office.
But, before you ask, I am not going to advocate management demanding that teams return to the office five days each week.
Let’s start with a simple truth, many bosses don’t believe that their employees are really working when they are at home. Take a look at this article from the Wall Street Journal. Like it or not, bosses aren’t buying that workers are as productive at home as they are at the office.
And, guess what? When it comes time for reviews and promotions, that will impact their appraisals of the workers. Beyond management skepticism, there is an issue of familiarity and comfort. It is human nature to have more confidence in promoting people with whom you have shared more time. The relationship between employees and their managers will be weaker when they spend less time together.
Alfred Dual of Digital Trends has suggested that the best theoretical support for this idea is “The Proximity Principle” by Kenneth Coleman. This is a summary of that book and principle. But thought that this quote nicely encapsulates the reasoning on why employees want to have face-time with senior executives: “the most gifted people in any field rarely develop in isolation; their craft is a grab-bag of skills and techniques they’ve copied, borrowed and filched from established masters. “
I was recently having a conversation with my son, Andy Horan, about this topic. He is a very successful middle level manager in a commercial insurance brokerage firm. He typically goes into the office three days per week. He believes that beyond any specific productivity gains by people being in the office, there are substantial benefits in training and acculturation that can only happen in person. And, typically that primarily happens between mid-level managers and lower-level folks. Although I would argue that it is just as important between senior managers and their direct reports. Task-specific, highly structured Zoom calls don’t offer the opportunity for coaching and knowledge transfer.
My friend, Brooke Chaffin, added the importance of the peer-to-peer relationships that are formed in the bullpens in the early days of one’s career. Those relationships can be a source of encouragement, support, job leads, sales leads and laughs for decades. Those bonds are built over a beer, a cup of coffee or a sandwich. They are harder to build over a concall.
I also suspect that with less personal interaction and weaker personal relationships, the work force will become even more volatile. The bonds between worker and company will grow ever thinner.
As I mentioned at the top, mandates don’t work. Many companies have tried to stuff the toothpaste back into the tube without success. We need to think carrots not sticks.
First, let’s give up on the notion that everyone will spend every working hour in the office. Some people will. A few people will rarely come into the office. But for most people it will be about finding an optimum blend that is enjoyable and productive. It might be two or three days each week. But it’s not zero or five.
Second, the burden of proof is on management to explain “why” people should come into the office. It can’t just be to facilitate supervision. Management needs to both state the benefits of in-person collaboration AND make sure that team members realize those benefits. For most people it isn’t to “work”. They can usually perform tasks at home.
Third, management needs to take responsibility for making the office a pleasant and productive environment. Yes, it’s work not summer camp. But we need people to want to come into the office not dread it. Management may need to “program” events that engage their teams and thereby create a reason to be in the office in person. And no, I wouldn’t stream them. Winner must be present.
Fourth, management needs to be in the office themselves and out on the floor and in the bullpen. Shake hands and kiss babies like you’re running for office. Show an interest in your team and especially, show appreciation. Be open to answering questions. That makes a powerful case for people showing up.
Finally, assuming that it’s true, management needs to tell employees the truth about how working from home too much will limit their advancement. I recently had coffee with an intelligent, talented young woman who had moved away from her company’s headquarters during the pandemic. At the time they said that it was OK. Now she was sensing that she was on an island by herself. Someone may prefer to live in a zoom town with ready access to skiing but their career path may change as a result. If that’s the case, we need to say it out loud.
We run the risk of doing long-term damage to our businesses if we don’t come to terms with this issue soon. I’ll leave you with a smile that Brooke Chaffin shared with me