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The Strengths and Weaknesses of Working from Home

Earlier this week, Thom Rainer wrote an interesting blog post: “Why Many More Employees Will Soon Be Working from Home.” He made the case that the Millennial generation (of which I am part) expects employers to offer flexibility in the where of working. He quotes a recent article from Fast Company that predicts 29% of office workers doing their work remotely by 2020:

  • Already 24 percent of organizations are changing the way their offices look to accommodate a more mobile workforce. They are adapting to and preparing for that more mobile workforce.
  • Of the 24 percent noted above, 96 percent are redesigning office space to reflect greater flexibility and collaboration. These redesigned spaces recognize that an employee who is in the office today may not be in the office the next three days.

There’s no doubt many Millennials expect to work off-site. I’ve talked to a number of people about job openings at LifeWay, only to find that relocation is sometimes an instant deal breaker. I’ve also talked to organizations that tout the “work-from-home” model as one of the best reasons to work there.

But I have serious reservations about the new model. Like it or not, it’s coming. But the new reality is not nearly as enticing to me as it might have been a few years ago. And I say this as someone who has a daily commute that puts me on the road an hour and a half.

Strengths of Working from Home

Let’s look at a few of the strengths of the home-based model.

  1. Less Overhead. No need for as much office space. Hook up a new employee with a computer and the ability to teleconference, and you’re on your way.
  2. No “punch-the-clock” mindset. I recently talked to an older lady who rides the bus with me to Nashville every day. I recommended she get off at an earlier stop so she could arrive at work ten minutes earlier. Her response? “It doesn’t matter, because I can’t leave any earlier.” She had a “punch-the-clock” mindset about her job. Put in your time, clock out when it’s time to go home, and you’re done. That mindset is foreign to me. Working from home does away with the time clock and puts the focus on getting the work done.
  3. Better use of travel time. Many employees commute more than 20 minutes one way to their work destination. Staying at home reclaims 40-75 minutes each day, time that can be used in productive ways. (Not to mention the savings on gas every day!)

Weaknesses of Working from Home

Despite these very real strengths, there are some significant drawbacks. Here are two big ones:

Loss of iron-sharpening interaction

This is the biggest weakness. In the two years I’ve been at LifeWay, I cannot underestimate the profound impact of working in an environment with so many gifted, driven, focused individuals. Hallway talks, quick conversations in the elevator, lunches with leaders – all of these contribute to an innovative work environment.

Interestingly enough, the same day I read Dr. Rainer’s blog post, I came across this section in Tim Keller’s Center Church, where he explains the migration of young people and innovative businesses to city centers. Keller writes:

Research shows us that productivity is significantly higher for companies that locate near the geographic center of “inventive activity” in their industry. Why? Proximity to others working in your field enables the infinite number of interactions, many of them informal, that turns neophytes into experts more quickly and helps experts stimulate each other to new insights.

A further observation comes from Edward Glaeser:

Much of the value of a dense work environment comes from unplanned meetings and observing the random doings of the people around you. Video conferencing will never give a promising young worker the ability to learn by observing the day-to-day operations of a successful mentor.

Keller summarizes this phenomenon, described by urban theorists as “agglomeration”:

The physical clustering of thousands of people who work in the same field naturally generates new ideas and enterprises.

It’s safe to assume that the reverse of this research is also true. Distance from co-workers dampens innovative thought.

Less Productivity

The strength I mentioned above (no more “punch-the-clock” mentality) has a corresponding weakness that can result in a loss of productivity. If you have many tasks to complete before the end of your work day, you are more likely to stay focused on the task at hand.

But when you are working at home, some of that urgency dissipates. You are more likely to be scattered than focused. You may get the same amount of work done, but it may take more of your time.

(There are exceptions to this rule. If the work you need to do is significantly creative in nature, working at home may indeed be the best way to focus on one particular task and not be distracted by everything else going on in the work environment.)

Toward a Hybrid-Model

Dr. Rainer envisions a hybrid model in the future:

The likely future is a hybrid of office workers and remote workers, many of whom will be home workers. And that likely future will accelerate with the Millennial generation once the unemployment rate declines to more normative levels. What is your organization doing to prepare for this future? How will the office space change? What will be the best ways to engender accountability? How will leaders guide those who are in the office one day and out the next?

It’s likely that working from home will be more and more common in the future. But I hope this does not mean the end of physical office space.

The best way forward for professionals would be a hybrid that leads to the maximization of productivity. Employers need to know and recognize the unique gifts of each employee in order to determine a middle path.

When working from home is ideal, it should be allowed. When the need for office interaction is ideal, it should be expected.

What About You?

What do you think? What are the strengths and weaknesses of working from home?

Categories: Life & Culture, Technology

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