Where (and How) We Want To Work
Things I learned asking 200 people about working from home
It began just after the lockdown, and sped through the phases of a modern cultural moment. Friends admitted to friends that they were kinda into it; the internet lol’d about it (pets on keyboards, pets on Zoom, partners meeting each others’ work personae); and The New York Times rubber-stamped it: America loves WFH and doesn’t want it to end.
Spotting the swelling wave of sentiment, a handful of companies popped up to ride it. Facebook, Google and Salesforce said employees may work from home for the rest of 2020. Twitter and Square said their folks never have to go to an office again. Shopify and Coinbase declared offices ‘over,’ consigned to the scrapheap of enterprise history alongside briefcases and the 9-to-5.
Melodramatic? Maybe. But if there’s a kernel of truth in the theory that offices are toast, we’re in for (yet more) serious socio-economic upheaval.
The Implications of WFH
Access to a high concentration of workplaces is a leading reason for living in or close to cities. If the number of, and need to be near, offices declines, it would likely reduce demand for urban areas, scuppering prices of huge swathes of commercial and residential real estate. Sales in the $3 trillion auto industry might take a hit too, along with public transport, local government, and a host of office services. In two sectors already bedeviled by market conditions, more restaurants and retailers would be rendered untenable.
WFH might ring in positive changes too: cheaper rents; re-population of small towns and rural areas; and a reduction in emission of greenhouse gases — albeit it is unclear whether WFH is actually more sustainable once you factor in daily heating and cooling of homes, and the increased number of deliveries to hundreds of millions of addresses.
Given the potential aftershocks of such a seismic shift, we should know what problem we’re solving before we hurtle down the highway to WFHville. Do we all want to toil from the spare bedroom? Really? Why? Is it the comfy pants, or are issues at play that might be resolved by solutions other than WFH? If WFH is the answer, what’s going to be lost from a personal and professional perspective if we eschew the office, and are we OK with that?
Looking for answers, I found the internet cupboard unusually empty, so I asked friends and connections and received some smart thoughts via Facebook and LinkedIn. I also fielded (on behalf of Kinship) a small national survey of 209 respondents, to make sure I was bursting my friend bubble, and to see if all the anecdotal reports stand up to numerical scrutiny.
By The Numbers
Working from home isn’t new to Corona-time. The U.S. Census in 2017 recorded that 5.2% of employees work from home, and Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report found that 43% of Americans WFH “at least some of the time.”
In our survey 32% of respondents said they worked from home ‘at least two days a week’ prior to the pandemic. That number rocketed during the lockdown, to a shade over 71% of the workforce, according to our survey, suggesting 40% of the workforce has spent the last three months trying out this lifestyle change. And, as that Times story suggested, many would like to make it permanent. In our survey 67% said they’d work from home if given an either/or choice.
But if you expand the options available to people, the picture changes in a telling way. When we gave people the hypothetical choice of splitting time, the number who wanted an all-office work life went down to a measly 8.6%, while only 19% wanted an all-WFH life. Most, 72% wanted a bit of both!
Flexibility is the Thing
That people want flexibility more than anything else was also reflected in the 60 or so comments on my aforementioned Facebook and LinkedIn posts — most folks clearly saw both sides of the home v. office argument and came down … somewhere in the middle.
“In a normal world,” said Anna Baskin, a content manager at Service Credit Union, “I’m not a huge fan of WFH full time because I get lonely, and I like the separation of home and office. I work later because there’s no need to log off. However, I like the option of being able to work from home as needed, or doing flex days.”
This won’t surprise business leaders who are in tune with their employees. Gallup’s 2017 poll showed that flexible working conditions are key to having happy, productive and loyal employees. Gallup found remote workers are 20–25% more productive than onsite colleagues, and that turnover in companies that allow remote working is 25% lower than in those that don’t.
Less Commute, More Family
When it comes to wanting time at home, there are a host of factors, but two emerge as the strongest forces: Avoiding the commute, and the desire to be with family.
Eliminating commuting is the number one reason for WFH for 32% of people according to our survey, (it was the number two reason for 30% of respondents). It is also frequently the most passionately argued rationale for ditching the office.
Copy editor, Greg Hughes put it thusly: “It’s bonkers that I spend 12–15 hours a week on cramped trains, staring into someone’s armpit, while spending a ludicrous amount of cash, for the privilege of working in a nondescript office block.”
Scott Galloway noted recently that from March 16 — May 1, New Yorkers saved an average of 40 hours by not commuting. The story was similar in many other cities too. That’s a lot of time that can be better spent working, or being with the people we love — and a lot of life-eating stress that can be eliminated with a pen stroke from the boss.
The other reason people want to spend more time at home is to be with their family. This was the top reason for wanting to WFH for 29% of respondents (and the number two reason for 24% of respondents).
Consultant Alan Wolk wonders if this is a stage of life thing: “In my 20s, unmarried in NYC, the office was my social life. (It was) where I made friends, who I ate lunch with, went for drinks with after work. That was standard for younger people and I did not mind spending 14 hours there. But once I got married, had kids and moved to the burbs my priorities changed. I wanted to be with my family, not my co-workers.”
The desire to eliminate time-sucking commutes and the desire to spend more time with family are commingled. In a CNBC/Change Research survey of 5,000 voters in swing states who are now WFH, 47% said time spent on commuting was now spent with family.
The Appeal of an Office
So that’s why flexibility-seeking workers want to WFH, but why do they want office time too?
That answer for most is co-workers. That’s right, it’s not the donuts or ping pong table, it’s the chance to work with, learn from, and befriend people. Just over 32% of respondents said professional collaboration with co-workers was the number one reason to be in the office, and 22% said their top reason was socializing with coworkers.
Carla Hendra, chief executive of Ogilvy Consulting, said of WFH: “I would really miss the sense of being a team together in reality vs. video, which is an entirely different (although valuable) experience. A researcher at MIT talks about social physics and the importance of informal networks vs. formal structure. Those networks have to be at least partly physical.”
This is an important point for leaders who want to implement more flexible work practices. Structured aspects of time at the office — planned meetings, interactions regarding project execution, etc — are possible to replicate remotely given the technology at our disposal. It is primarily informal interactions that are endangered by an increase in WFH.
Informal interactions allow for social learning through observation of colleagues, which - the research that Hendra references - found is how new ideas get adopted. Unstructured moments are also, as many of us have experienced, the times when people spot a new opportunity to collaborate; learn about something happening in another part of the company; or form a new bond that makes them happier and more productive.
We Need Informal Interaction
In a recent CNBC story the chief people officer at Limeade talked about restructuring for greater flexibility and more WFH for employees, and said they were trying to identify an “in-office-day” when all in-person meetings would take place. That is a natural response to the idea of reduced office time, but given the value of informal interaction, perhaps formal meetings should be remote, while office time (and office spaces) should be designed to encourage organic interaction, serendipity and camaraderie.
As colleagues spend less time in the same physical spaces, it is going to be important to work harder at knowing our colleagues as humans. What’s going on in their lives? How might we help them professionally in a way that will help them personally? Without spending time in the same room , it’s easy to overlook that stuff, and yet that is often the truest source of job satisfaction.
One way of reading people’s responses to the idea of WFH is that the pandemic that has wrought so much havoc, is also helping us to see what really matters. For many of us, that means spending less time in traffic (or armpits); finding a harmonious balance between what we do and who we are; and having the opportunity to connect with diverse people who share our professional interests. New working arrangements that aim to deliver against those goals would be a laudable result of this tumultuous time.