The future of work is at home. Or at least that’s what our leaders and many senior execs and workers appear to believe. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sent an email to staff in May to notify them that they could continue working from home as long as they see fit. Finance directors are shredding property and travel budgets. And many employees report that they are more productive working from home (WFH), have a better work-life balance and certainly don’t miss the commute. A union leader told the UK government to accept that the ‘world of work has changed,’ and called ministers ‘dinosaurs’ for attempting to get civil servants back to their desks. Get with the programme, grandad!
Health concerns aside, the case for WFH seems to be simple, straightforward and utilitarian – and pushing at an open door. The case for the office is complex, nuanced and very human. And it needs to be made.
Before I make that case for the office, some background. The concept of remote working first captured my imagination after reading Alvin Toffler enthuse about ‘telecommuting’ from ‘electronic cottages’ in his 1980 futurist classic, The Third Wave. I managed a highly profitable virtual design team from home for a few years in the 1990s, via dial-up modems and then ISDN lines. More recently, I have been an early adopter and keen advocate of cloud collaboration tools such as Asana, Zoom, Dropbox, and Google G Suite. My company has long operated a WFH policy for ‘head-down’ work, one or two days per week, and we switched to remote working in a heartbeat at the start of the lockdown. We are paying extortionate central London rents, and we’re heading into a severe recession – but I intend to hang on to office working.
The attractions of WFH are immediately tangible, but short-term for many. While going fully remote will make sense for some individuals and companies, leaders should weigh the longer-term and more intangible impacts before joining the rush.
The productivity mirage
Just as research shows that brainstorming is fun, but doesn’t lead to better ideas, the belief that you’re more productive WFH doesn’t make it so. There is a dearth of robust evidence to support the much-claimed productivity gains of remote working.