The Coronavirus Is Creating a Huge, Stressful Experiment in Working From Home
We are living in such times that WTF is no longer the most popular three letter acronym featuring the letters W and F, having been surpassed by WFH – Working From Home. Some industries such as tech and media have been used to people working from home over the years but never has this phenomenon been implemented at such a wide scale across industries and geographies. There are prophecies galore that by the end of it all, people might embrace this to an extent that it becomes the norm having appreciated the benefits of it all. In this piece in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson reckons it isn’t as straight forward – there are pitfalls to working from home, primarily around social and psychological, especially in a world with increasing prevalence of depression further ‘social distancing’ on a permanent basis could cause more harm than good.
“Even before the pandemic struck, remote work was accelerating in the U.S. The share of the labor force that works from home tripled in the past 15 years, according to the Federal Reserve. Two of the accelerants are obvious: living costs in metros with the highest density of knowledge workers, and technology, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, that moves collaboration and gossip online.
But the early returns from America’s home offices are mixed. In The New York Times, Kevin Roose writes from his makeshift quarantine bunker that remote work impedes the creative sparks that fly when we are interacting with actual people rather than their thumbnails on Slack.
In the 2016 paper “Does Working From Home Work?” a team of economists looked at Ctrip, a 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency that had randomly assigned a small group of its call-center staff to work from home. At first, the experiment seemed like a win-win for workers and owners. Employees worked more, quit less, and said they were happier with their job. Meanwhile, the company saved more than $1,000 per employee on reduced office space. But when Ctrip rolled out this policy to the entire company, it caused a mess. One complaint swamped everything else: Loneliness.
Beyond lost creativity and companionship, the gravest threat to many companies from remote work is that it breaks the social bonds that are necessary to productive teamwork. Several years ago, Google conducted a research project on its most productive groups. The company found that the most important quality was “psychological safety”—a confidence that team members wouldn’t embarrass or punish individuals for speaking up.”
However, one can’t overlook the benefits of eliminating commute times and the consequent benefits for climate change.
“As jobs concentrate in downtown areas without affordable housing, workers’ homes are pushed into the far suburbs. The American commute is a psychological and environmental scourge that increases depression, divorce, and fossil-fuel emissions. The average commute in the U.S. recently hit an all-time record of 27 minutes one-way. That’s almost an hour a day spent away from friends and family, in a machine coughing fumes into the sky. Allowing people to work closer to home—whether at a coffee shop, in a co-working space, or on a couch—could be a win for work-life balance, for happiness, and for the biosphere.”
Derek also brings out a more nuanced benefit of WFH – diversity, where industries don’t necessarily have to draw employees from the same geographic and hence likely socioeconomic clusters.
“Another downside of headquarter-based work is that the concentration of labor in high-income metros can attract people from the same socioeconomic pool, who share the same ideas and blind spots. “One thing that’s not talked about enough is that being distributed, you have a less homogenous culture,” said Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of the search engine DuckDuckGo, whose workforce is distributed around the world. “Working remotely, people are never forced to get a drink after work. You’re not substituting work socialness for community socialness. They are in their own communities. So you’re really getting real diversity of thought.””