Everyone dreams about working from home. For the American worker still struggling with the stress of commuting and the distractions of coworkers visiting their office, working remotely sounds like cool salve on a hot sunburn.
But how many American workers could really get things done if they had the option of hanging out in their pajamas all day? It turns out, a high percentage of workers are not only more productive working remotely, but they’re also more engaged.
What are the latest statistics on the WFH craze? What trends will impact what is becoming the new normal of a distributed workforce? Is working from home a totally positive experience or are there drawbacks to consider?
Benefits of Working from Home
At-home workers have hit the Small Business Trends' radar; last year, they said 3.9 million Americans were working from home at least a few days every week. Globally, 70% of all workers telecommute to a certain extent. Some of the biggest companies are developing a stronger remote work pool, including Amazon, Cigna, Dell, Nielsen, Philips, and Salesforce. But the article pointed out that it’s not just the behemoths of the work world; small companies are taking advantage of flexible work arrangements that include working from home, freelancing, or some combination of those two.
What's in It for My Company?
The benefits for these companies is that, in a tight labor market, a work-from-home option can broaden the labor pool and make attracting talent a little easier for human resource teams.
But that option is not completely altruistic; a study from Global Workplace Analytics says that if American companies fully utilized a work-from-home labor force, they could save more than $700 billion per year. From real estate to energy costs, there is a corresponding overhead reduction just waiting for companies to cash in. The same study also suggested:
- The work-from-home labor force could get back two to three weeks each year from eliminated commuting
- They would save $2,000 to $3,000 annually in commuter costs
- Telecommuting could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 54 million tons, which is like taking almost 10 million cars off the roads...
- ...and save on accident-related costs to the tune of more than $10 billion
What's in It for Me, the Employee?
Perhaps this is why FlexJobs says remote work is a trend that’s not going away anytime soon; their study predicts 38% of the American workforce will be remote in the next decade. Global Workplace Analytics breaks down the benefits by worker market segment impact, suggesting that work-from-home arrangements:
- Address the needs of parents, families, and senior caregivers
- Offer younger workers a chance to work on their own terms
- Open up the job market to the disabled, residents in rural areas, and traveling military families
But wait, there's more!
TechCrunch has an article on how office politics change when there is no office to go to. They point out the lack of annoyances stemming from cohabiting eight hours a day with people you may not know or like. Issues such as overly loud employees or the ones that always microwave their tuna sandwich just don’t come up when you WFH.
But what do employees say about the work-from-home option? A Buffer study this year showed that once people go remote, they won’t go back; 90% say they plan on working remotely for the rest of their careers. For those workers that only get a taste of the WFH life every week, 60% say they want more, please. The biggest benefits are schedule flexibility and spending more time with family.
Where’s Work-Life Balance When Your Home Life Is Work Life?
Working from home has drawbacks though.
An Oxford University study last year suggested that workers registered on remote work platforms experience poor work-life balance. The research documented 70 million people around the world registered on sites like Freelancer.com and Fiverr and concluded that working from home on these gig economy-style sites was a mixed bag; workers say they have autonomy to access stimulating work remotely but also report social isolation and overwork.
The Buffer study said the remote workers they polled also cited negative impact in addition to the overwhelmingly positive response:
- 21% said working from home made them lonelier
- Another 21% said they miss the collaboration that naturally occurs in a shared office environment
- 16% said they had a lot of distractions at home
- 14% cited an inability to stay motivated
- 13% said they had time zone challenges
- 8% said finding reliable Wi-Fi was difficult
The remaining 7% cited other undefined challenges stemming from remote work. It seems that working from home isn’t the win-win that many non-remote workers assume it is. Like working at an office, remote work has pros and cons.
While there are now coworking spaces that allow employees to come together to have camaraderie or at least feel that they’re not alone in the world, workers in remote regions may not have this option.
The other big issue for the work-from-home labor force is that they may simply not know when to shut it off. A New York Times article says, “Work hours may never end, yet you will wonder, ‘Could I be doing more?’” Therein lies the problem for the remote workforce. Could an employee turn into even more of a workaholic if they don’t have the boundaries of the 5:00pm work whistle signaling the end of their labor?
SkillCrush shares the story of a five-year veteran of the remote workforce who suggests, “In order to stay sharp and happy working from home, you’ll need to institute some home office rules and routines.” Those routines are designed to keep you from having the remote worker freedom to work yourself to death.
Creating a work-life balance for the remote worker must include:
- Creating a dedicated office workspace, just like you’d have at the office. If you have kids or pets, it might be a good idea to have an office door that can close firmly behind you.
- Speaking of kids and pets, setting a routine that includes some “do not disturb” hours is important. Tell the dogs and kiddos to pretend that Mommy really isn’t home right now, so forget the walk until the “commute” is over and the work is done, just like on any job.
- Take a lunch break just as if you were at the office. Block out time to stand up, move around, take a walk, or go out to eat. When was the last time you showered? Have you left the apartment recently? Setting some rules to divide your day into normal increments will help you find work-life balance even when working from home.
- Schedule time off as part of your routine. It’s so easy to get sucked back into work on the weekends, for example, because the computer is right there. There are dozens of studies showing that taking time off recharges your batteries. The American Psychological Association says 68% of U.S. workers have a more positive attitude toward work after taking some time off. Yet Americans are failing in their efforts to recoup vacation time; 52% of us fail to take designated PTO. Even when we go on the big vacay, 68% of Americans check personal and work email during their time away.
It seems that the ability to work from home is both highly coveted and highly risky, with pros and cons associated with the remote lifestyle. Ironically, the same could be said about working in an office. But there is a bit of an employer backlash out there, with a few companies withdrawing their formerly liberal work-from-home policies.
The Work-from-Home Backlash
Last year, The Atlantic told the story of IBM’s remote labor experience, and it was a tale that left many remote workers feeling worried. IBM was one of the pioneers of the modern remote worker; by 1983, there were around 2,000 IBM staffers that were taking advantage of the option. By 2009, the article reported more than 40% of the IBM workforce rarely or never came to the office. The company saved $2 billion in unused and offloaded office space. But evidently, IBM felt as if the phrase “taking advantage” was too literal, and last year, they required that thousands of their workers come home to a real physical office. The news was met with ridicule and disgust, and not just from the workforce. The President of Global Workplace Analytics said, “If what they’re looking to do is reduce productivity, lose talent, and increase cost, maybe they’re on to something.” It should be noted that IBM was not the first to revoke their work-from-home rights; Best Buy, Aetna, and Yahoo have all done it.
Conversely, there’s Basecamp, the project management platform, which is trying to take work-from-home one step further by removing the green dot showing worker availability on the instant messaging platform feature. Jason Fried, the CEO, says the green dot chains workers to an artificial construct of a 9-to-5 office mentality and “what matters is letting people design their own schedule around when they can do their best work.”
The Bottom Line?
So, is working from home really productive?
The Atlantic suggests there are studies that show it is and studies that show it isn’t. The ultimate answer to the question seems to be tied both to the individual and the type of role they’re working. While it may seem like a knee-jerk move for companies to revoke the privilege of working from home, the truth is that productivity is always tied to the individual, so whether the option works is really up to you.