If you could return to your pre-pandemic work arrangement right now, would you do it?
I conducted an informal email survey last month to hear how 9-to-5 professionals would answer that question. What were their reasons for wanting a more traditional in-office or an alternative working-from-home (WFH) arrangement?
I deduced some central themes from the about 100 responses I received. For one thing, people's decisions about whether or not they'd go back were nuanced. Of the approximately 75 percent of my respondents who said they would NOT go back, nearly all gave a qualifier such as "I'd be happier and more productive working from home permanently IF my kids weren't out of school."
I also heard many of the same pros and cons time and time again.
Pros of Working From Home
Some of the recurring pros reflected that working from home gave individuals control over the typical, day-to-day stress of being in an office. Many find that working from home is a better fit for their comfort zones.
About half of respondents who said they would not go back to the office mentioned freedom specifically. These individuals relish the independence and flexibility that come with working from home.
“It’s much less distracting and I don't have the wasted time of a commute twice a day,” says Jesse Silkoff, co-founder and president of MyRoofingPal. "It has also allowed my wife and I to have more time together since we can meet up for a coffee break. And, I’ve saved a ton of money having easy access to my own refrigerator, preferred coffee and the casual clothes I want to wear."
Interestingly, one-third of respondents who would not go back to the old way were positive about having a work environment full of kids and pets. When DevSkiller co-founder Tom Winter was working at the office, he was so exhausted when he came home, he didn’t have the energy to play with his children.
“Remote work has allowed me to enjoy family meals and park visits,” he says.
Pet safety company Huan's founder Gilad Rom feels he has a better quality of life with his dog Puppy Pie keeping him company as he works.
“He reminds me to take breaks, he reduces my stress and our bond is much stronger,” Rom says.
No More Sunday Blues
“When I was working in the office, it was the typical job and I was in an endless cycle of feeling excited for Friday and dreading the ensuing Monday two days later,” he says. “Working from home, I mostly maintain the same 9-to-5 routine. For some reason, though, I'm less negatively impacted by the prospect of getting back to work on Monday morning.”
Better for Introverts
Most self-proclaimed introverts agreed that overall, WFH better supports their natural tendencies. The extroverts who manage and work with introverts have also noticed the positive impact WFH has had on them.
“Before the pandemic, I would go to my clients’ offices to conduct in-person workshops,” says Dave Collins, CEO of corporate education firm Oak & Reeds. “Now, my company has pivoted to virtual-only training, and I’ve found that this format gives the quieter, more introspective workshop participants more of an opportunity. In a live group setting, I might have really had to push them, but the virtual privacy gives introverts a bit of cover when sharing their experiences.”
Cons of WFH
About 25 percent of respondents said they would return to the office, citing the need for human interaction as their rationale. Those who wanted to return to working in an office found that communicating virtually often doesn't produce the same levels of collegiality, work-life separation, and reliability.
Missing Rapport-Building Interactions
One respondent who misses working face-to-face is Bruce Mirken, media relations director for the Greenlining Institute, a policy, research and leadership organization working for racial and economic justice.
“Working on sometimes emotional issues requires trust and confidence in one’s colleagues, and it’s really hard to build these on video calls. And sometimes those casual conversations over lunch are where you pick up useful leads or bits of info,” Mirken says.
McKall Morris, the communications manager of Extra Space Storage, agrees.
“The little moments where leaders or more experienced teammates pull you aside for extra mentoring or explaining context doesn’t happen online like it does in-person,” Morris says.
Loss of Boundaries
About half of respondents who'd prefer to go back said they didn't love the fluid nature of a blended work day. Sheltering and working in place created an “available 24/7” lifestyle, blurring the line between one’s personal and professional lives.
“It’s very difficult to completely disconnect, especially when your office is your bedroom or kitchen table, inches away and always buzzing with a Slack or email notification,” laments Shift Communications senior account executive Vito Gallo.
Antti Alatalo, founder and CEO of Smart Watches 4 U, would elect to return to the office for this very reason.
“I believe when you don’t keep things separated, it can adversely affect the quality of your work and your relationships," Alatalo says. "Stress from one area can easily carry over to the other.”
Working from home, I mostly maintain the same 9-to-5 routine. For some reason, though, I'm less negatively impacted by the prospect of getting back to work on Monday morning.
—Jason VanDevere, CEO, Goal Crazy Planners
By now, most WFH professionals have seen the downside of online collaboration technology. Issues may be tough to resolve when you don’t have an IT department to step in immediately. Freelance writer Heather Taylor realized that the ability to embrace remote work depended on constant access to the Internet.
“There have been a few times when my WiFi has gone out and I’ve had to text my boss to let her know I’m in limbo waiting for it to come back up,” she says.
COVID-19 has made tech unreliability even more complicated and stressful.
“I haven’t been able to go to a secondary location, like a coffeehouse, library, or co-working space,” Taylor adds. “It’s a lot of pressure to make sure the tech works always works in one specific spot.”
Everything Has to Line Up
Working from home is harder than it looks, and it takes time and intention to make it happen. (David Johnson, CTO at software firm Mulytic Labs, says he took five years to build an optimal WFH infrastructure.)
“My work has traditionally entailed travel and hands-on experience, as our purpose is to provide our audience with knowledge they can’t search online themselves," Newton says. "Relying on research has made this a lot harder.”
WFH has opened up a lot of new employment possibilities, but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all venture. The fact that everyone answers the question “would you go back?” differently underscores the need for greater customization of work schedules and environments in the future.
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