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Not so fast! Why WFH is not necessarily a great new paradigm

It was inevitable. Enterprising managers would notice some of the benefits of a work from home (WFH) team and declare it the “New Paradigm” going forward. 

I’ll admit it is tantalizing – greater productivity, lower travel costs, higher morale, lower turnover, a much larger candidate pool that is unrestrained by geography, reduced real estate expense, heck, even less traffic and pollution (queue the birds and butterflies). What’s not to love? 

I’m a happy WFH veteran, yet I encourage managers who are new to the WFH environment and are considering making it a permanent solution to pump the breaks until they have fully considered the implications. 

 

The Good

A Taste of Autonomy

One of the most fundamental intrinsic motivators is autonomy which is the ability to be self-directed about how you do your work. Autonomy is normally earned by an employee and then granted by management, but in this case the pandemic forcibly granted a hefty degree of autonomy to much of the workforce whether their managers wanted to or not. 

Companies were forced to rapidly execute a massive operational shift with almost no time to prepare. Instead of dictating and directing every inconsequential iota of “change management,” they had to rely upon their team’s ingenuity to execute much of the transition on their own, and they did. 

This is the magic of autonomy. It allows people to use their creativity to solve problems related to their own jobs. They can utilize their hands-on experience to create a workable solution, and because it’s their solution they have much greater sense of accountability for the results. 

Autonomy is strongly associated with increased morale for obvious reasons. The increased opportunity for creative thinking as well as the liberation from “over-the-shoulder” management leads to a much more interesting and comfortable work environment. People like interesting and comfortable. 

Greater Productivity

When I visit the office in person, I am often struck by how much time I spend in work chit-chat. It’s not like we are chatting about our favorite episode of Parks and Rec, we’re talking work. But talking about work and working are two different things. Talking about work feels like work and sounds like work, but it isn’t work and can end up consuming a big portion of the day without contributing value. 

There are some tasks that require “flow,” that uninterrupted state of being in the zone. A WFH setting may make it easier to ensure that flow is possible especially for tasks like writing, creative work, programming, and deep analysis. 

Better Work Environment

WFH may be an incredible quality of life enhancer. Courtney Schmidt, Client Success Manager for Mivation describes this beautifully, “My home is my sanctuary, the sun filled & airy spot where I have my monitors set up lets me enjoy the things I love most about my home. Our family has a better quality of life when my husband and I work from home, substituting commutes for exercise and early dinners simply takes out some of the everyday hustle of a dual working parent household.” There’s not much I can add to that endorsement.

 

The Bad

Poor Visibility

Unless you are using the proper productivity software tools and are tracking the right metrics, a manager’s visibility into the team’s work is reduced to almost nothing. “Work blindness” can cause a great deal of anxiety for both managers who want to know their employees are working, as well as the employees who want their manager, and the rest of their team, to know that they are contributing. Without the right tools to provide visibility the entire organization can struggle under a sense of powerlessness, detachment, and isolation.

Creativity Killer

Some tasks are better completed by a group working together in person. As of 2020 virtual is NOT the same as reality. The awkward verbal exchanges, digital distortions, and uncertain conversation flow can hamper a team’s ability to really brainstorm innovative ideas and capitalize upon the combined intellectual capacity of the team. Since it’s hard enough for an introvert to insert their ideas into a conversation dominated by constantly talking extroverts in person, the added disconnect created by a virtual environment may remove them (and therefore their contribution) entirely from the team. 

Human Element

Much of our communication is non-verbal in nature. A slight widening of the eyes, clasping the hands, or a deep breath can all convey information about how somebody is reacting to a message. None of these are visible in a gritty 3 x 3-inch Zoom image. Show me a person who claims that video conferencing is just as good or better as an in-person meeting and I’ll show you someone with terrible people skills. By removing the ability to read non-verbal communication we reduce the quality of human interactions at work and create opportunities for misunderstandings that will compound over time. 

It might be “Classist”

Don’t be so quick to assume that your team CAN work from home indefinitely. Different cultures have very different living arrangements that may include extended families living together under the same roof. Rich executives who can now comfortably split their time between their townhome and their vacation home may rejoice at permanent WFH, but don’t forget those who may be working from their bedroom floor.

 

New Paradigm or New Opportunity

Recent events have neither altered human nature nor fundamentally redefined work. They have, however, given us an opportunity to experience the benefits of increased autonomy, productivity and focus that are possible when working in a home environment that many of us prefer to a windowless “grey-cube”.  While it’s natural to want as much of a good thing as we can get, we must also consider the potential pitfalls of poor work visibility, diminished human interaction, and personal challenges that WFH could create. Ultimately, the question isn’t “Should we work from home or at an office?”, but rather “How can we make the work environment better?” The pandemic caused us to flex, but we didn’t break. Let’s keep that flexibility and create the best possible work environment by keeping the best of both worlds.

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