(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)
Don’t believe everything you hear about working from home. The pandemic has closed offices around the world. The video-conferencing service Zoom has seen its corporate subscriber numbers grow more than 350%. Cloud companies are falling over themselves to tell people “see, we told you so! The cloud works!” Well, up to a point.
OK, the cloud does work. The technology is fast and (mostly) secure. For too many years small business owners – a great number of them my own clients – ignored these powerful technologies that would have allowed their employees more flexibility. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve learned that, assuming a relatively new computer and a relatively decent broadband connection, most office workers can get much of their jobs done from their home offices. And, depending on the person, potentially be more productive.
So does this mean the end of the office? A “new normal”? Everyone just goes home and phones it in? Of course not.
Sure, big companies like Square and Twitter are now giving their employees the ability to work from home “permanently”. And, no surprise here, surveys like this one are now saying that people prefer to work from home where they can hang out with their dogs and wear their fuzzy slippers instead of getting dressed to sit in a corporate center cubicle for eight hours. Some analyses insist that working from home increases productivity. Other reports are saying that – because of this phenomenon – offices will become empty, rents will plummet, company cultures will forever change and the face-to-face workplace will fade into history.
Don’t believe it. The demand for real estate may dip, but it’ll return. Don’t burn your cubicles or destroy your beautiful new open office plan. This trend, like a pendulum, will ultimately swing back in another direction. Why do I say this?
It’s because what value does a small business have when its employees are allowed to roam free, loosely connected via Office or G Suite, and because of the unavoidable lack of supervisory controls are allowed to do, say and think things that may not be consistent with a company’s mission or messaging? Not very valuable at all. Case in point: my company.
Because my company has been virtual for more than 10 years. Every one of my 10 people works from home. Sure, the overhead is low. But you know what? I miss an office. My company suffers from not having one. We have no culture. We rarely see each other as a group. We are not really a team, and lack bonding or social connections. We miss out on extemporaneously sharing ideas. Our innovation suffers. As a result, the value of my business suffers. I know I’m not alone in this.
Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, recently told the New York Times not to “over-celebrate” any perceived productivity gains from remote work. “What I miss is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the person that is next to you, you’re able to connect with them for the two minutes before and after,” he says. “One of the things I feel is, hey, maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?”
The remote work craze isn’t new. The internet has been around for a while. And over the past decade big companies like Yahoo, IBM, Aetna, Best Buy and many others reversed their work-from-home policies to get people back into the office and talking face to face. They realized the cost of keeping these workers away from each other far exceeded the savings they were reaping on rent and utilities. They realized that people need human contact to get things done. Real, live, face-to-face human contact.
The work from home craze is not hyped. It’s just overhyped. Every business needs to have a work-from-home policy and if you didn’t learn that from the pandemic then you are definitely missing the boat. Giving employees some flexibility to do their jobs remotely not only improves their job satisfaction but creates a great recruiting tool for those younger employees who have been demanding this benefit for years. Clearly the technology works and, depending on the person, your productivity should not suffer.
But work-from-home policies need balance. I’ve seen from many successful clients that a good policy requires a certain number of days every week in the office. There has to be physical presence. You need to see that worker and that worker needs to see you and his or her colleagues. You can’t create a team when everyone’s completely virtual. Something is missing. Human contact is missing. Technology just can’t replace that. Don’t worry, your dog will be fine.