What if you never had to return to work? Never had to return to work at the office, that is.
You’d be able to juggle kids on school holidays. You wouldn’t need to navigate traffic jams. Your employer might gain increased productivity, lower turnover and lower lease costs. But there are less obvious downsides.
In 2010, as part of building a case for the national broadband network, the Gillard government set a target for teleworking, suggesting the Australian economy could save between A$1.4 billion and A$1.9 billion a year if 10% of the workforce teleworked half the time.
Her successors have cooled on the idea. The web address www.telework.gov.au no longer works and reliable statistics for telework don’t exist.
Yet it’s attractive.
It seems like a grand idea…
Studies find working from home cuts commuting times and associated fatigue, transport congestion, and environmental impacts. Worldwide, an increasing number of employers are allowing it in order to attract and retain staff.
Employees value it as a way to maintain a work-life balance, in particular millennials.
And the office has become a nightmare for some. A tide of research finds many employees working in modern open-plan offices are so distracted by noise and interruptions they can’t concentrate.
In my research on the workplace, employees frequently tell me they have to work from home to get work done.
Other research supports these findings. A two-year study using randomly assigned groups found a 13% productivity increase. It also found turnover decreased by 50% among those working at home and that they took shorter breaks and fewer sick days. And the company saved around US$2,000 (A$2,784) per employee on lease costs.
It’s enough to make employers allow working from home for everyone who can. But a key finding from the same study sounds a cautionary note.
More than half the volunteers that worked from home felt so isolated they changed their minds about wanting to do it all the time.
…until you try it
It’s not just isolation and loneliness.
Research shows working from home is far worse for team cohesion and innovation than working in the office.
In 2013 Yahoo chief executive Marissa Meyer banned working from home, saying that in order “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”
Since then, other large corporates including Bank of America and IBM have followed suit.
Contrary to what we might think, research shows that as the availability of laptops and other remote work devices increases, proximity has becoming more important.
One study showed that engineers who shared a physical office were 20% more likely to stay in touch digitally than those who worked remotely. Employees who were in the same office emailed four times as often to collaborate on shared projects than staff who weren’t in the office. The result, for these sorts of projects, was 32% faster project completion times.
Other research finds face to face interaction is essential for identifying opportunities for collaboration, innovation and developing relationships and networks.
Another study of home workers from 15 countries found 42% of remote workers had trouble sleeping, waking up repeatedly in the night, compared to only 29% who always worked in the office.
Authors: Libby Sander, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Bond Business School, Bond University