(This article was written by Dana Brownlee and appeared on Forbes.com.)
Considering benefits like reduced commute times, lower pollution levels, reduced operational costs, and increased morale….a permanent work from home business model sounds like the ultimate win-win-win-win, right? Well, not so fast. There’s a world of difference between making something work temporarily because you have to and choosing it as your permanent environment.
Recent announcements that virtually all Twitter and Square employees will have the option to work from home forever sent shock waves through business communities already grappling with the difficult decision of how and when to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On the heels of surprisingly successful work from home experiences, survey data clearly suggest a momentum towards expanded work from home policies going forward. The obvious longer-term policy question for many organizations is how much working from home and for how long? Google and Facebook have announced plans to permit employees to work from home through the end of 2020.
Corporate leaders who find themselves both reveling in the short-term success of forced virtual working while also desperately seeking to reduce operational expenses may be tempted to swing the organizational design pendulum to the extreme and sign up for a near ubiquitous remote working business model. While remote working can absolutely be part of an effective, contemporary organizational design, moving to widespread, long term remote working could in fact be a grave mistake for many. There’s been so much celebration of the benefits of virtual working, that we have possibly neglected to soberly consider the risks as well. Let’s examine just a few of the very real risks.
Team Culture and Cohesion Atrophy
Obviously one of the biggest challenges for remote teams is the uphill battle to build and maintain a sense of team cohesion and camaraderie. Yes, there are best practices that teams can use to help compensate for the lack of face time in the short term, but trying to build or sustain a real sense of team without physical proximity may be like dating someone from another country that you meet online. Yes, it’s possible to cultivate true intimacy but difficult at best. When I worked as a management consultant for a large Fortune 100 IT firm with a projectized business model, I spent months on end physically working with a designated project team at an out of town client location. I absolutely felt more bonded with my in-person project team at the client location than my official team “on paper” back at headquarters. We bonded over shared inside jokes emanating from meetings that went awry, casual conversations over lunch and late nights spent hammering out deliverables in the office. That type of bonding simply isn’t on the menu in a 100% remote model. It’s also important to remember that working remotely with a team that’s been intact for some time is completely different than starting a team from scratch or even onboarding new team members remotely.
Collaboration Challenges and Productivity Loss
An obvious consequence of physical distance and less frequent contact is the fact that collaboration becomes harder. It just does. Yes, it can happen, but it requires conscious, persistent effort. Instead of just popping into Laura’s office to clarify an oddly worded email, the situation can easily degenerate into a protracted game of email volleyball or worse yet, unwittingly create strained relationships. Another important issue to consider is that for some who might already feel disadvantaged in the workplace (e.g. women, minorities, younger staff, introverts), they may face additional challenges being heard and valued virtually. The New York Times explored this phenomenon in the article “It’s Not Just You: In Online Meetings, Many Women Can’t Get a Word In.” Furthermore, face time can be absolutely critical for many of these same communities as they seek to expand their networks and gain access to power. Admittedly, there are certainly roles in most organizations that tend to be more insular, less collaboration dependent where employees can in fact be more productive working from home – writing, sales, social media, developers, etc.—but it’s a mistake to assume that those productivity benefits translate across the board to everyone.
Diminished Customer Service Perceptions
Just as most leading ecommerce companies offer several customer service options—chat, email, phone—to offer options to suit customers’ range of preferences, there will be certain customers or even industry segments where in person interaction is expected as part of the service value. For those companies who choose to eliminate this option, they may create a competitive disadvantage if their competitors do not. Clearly, social media companies like Twitter and Facebook may not face these customer expectations, but for others, they should not just consider the potential impact (of moving completely virtual) on their workforce but also contemplate the ripple effect for their customers, partners, suppliers and other stakeholders. Just because employees may now expect to work from home doesn’t mean that a company’s other key stakeholders will necessarily buy into the new model long term.
Information Security Risk
Clearly, individual homes are uncontrolled, unsecure environments; therefore, permitting employees to work outside a controlled environment can expose the organization to significant long-term risks. Collaboration software company Wrike conducted an April 2020 Remote Work Security Survey of 1,002 workers that found that nearly 1 in 5 indicated that they’d not received any company guidelines for working securely while working remote. Meanwhile, about 41% of workers said they still use personal applications to transmit confidential files on at least a weekly basis.
Accountability and Other Performance Management Challenges
Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room….accountability. The truth is that for those amazing, high work ethic, ridiculously responsible employees, they will find a way to be successful wherever they work and accountability won’t be an issue. On the other hand, for those managers struggling with “problem children” employees, the last thing they probably want to read is a corporate announcement that employees now have the option to work home…forever. Admittedly, there are some employees who will be problematic wherever they work, but providing the license to work from home can certainly make a bad situation worse. Other employees may not necessarily be problem children – they may want to perform well and be somewhat competent but just not perform well outside the confines of a more controlled environment. They may opt for the more commute friendly option to work from home with the best of intentions, but then suffer developmentally because they don’t have the in-person support system they may need to not just produce but also to grow and mature professionally.
Loneliness and Longer-Term Mental Health Impacts
For many, while they love the convenience of working from home, it can certainly be a bit maddening to spend nearly 24×7 at home, pandemic notwithstanding. I remember that in my 20s when I lived alone and worked from home, I noticed that I started going to the grocery store a lot more. Since I really didn’t enjoy cooking or grocery shopping, I found it really odd and thought about it one day. To my shock I concluded that I was really going for social interaction. For people who live alone (and everyone else for that matter), work provides more than work. It’s a part of their lifestyle and social network and completely upending that can bring negative consequences for some. The New Yorker article “The History of Loneliness” examines this issue in part by posing the question, “In the age of quarantine, does one disease produce another?”
It goes without saying that as companies grapple with these difficult decisions, safety and public health guidance should continue to drive decision making. Remote working can indeed be an amazing alternative when in person interaction is not feasible (or advisable), and in many organizations teleworking should be adopted more broadly. However, I would argue that its implementation is most effectively determined on a case by case or even business model by business model basis. What works for a small, Silicon Valley startup may not work well for a larger more traditional non tech company. Without a doubt, one of the benefits of this forced experiment is the realization of the significant benefits of remote working, learning, etc. but the thought of simply using this limited experience as justification for flipping the switch to upend one’s business model is a scary one. Arguably, one of the worst things for the viability of work from home initiatives in the long term would be ill advised, impulsive leaps towards ubiquitous adoption in the short term. Remote working can be a powerful tool when considered carefully and implemented strategically. The key is using the scalpel approach to organizational redesign, not the chainsaw.