Work‑From‑Home Policies Are Popular in Theory, But Succeed Only in Ideal Settings
As the Indian workforce starts prioritizing work-life balance and begins questioning a culture that glorifies overwork, work-from-home policies are taking center stage as a potential vehicle for balance. Numerous surveys suggest Indian millennials want more control over where they work. In fact, these policies have become so attractive workers are even willing to accept an 8% pay cut if they’re given the option to work from home, a 2017 study from Harvard and Princeton universities found.
But working from home comes with both pros and cons for employees.
Earlier this year, a U.S. journalist conducted informal interviews with more than 100 people who have work-from-home jobs to evaluate the pros and cons of remote working. The benefits of working from home included being able to “take care of appointments and errands,” having to deal with “fewer interruptions from meetings and chitchat,” and not having to shell out money or time for commutes. This, some case studies show, can increase employees’ productivity. One 2015 study found call-center employees in a Chinese travel agency increased their productivity by 13% when they were allowed to work from home. Researchers found this was due to a decrease in break time and sick days for the employees, combined with a more comfortable and less distracting work environment.
But respondents in the U.S. news survey also voiced concerns over their working style when they worked from home. These included not being able to separate work and leisure time, not being able to communicate effectively via email and text, and having to make a concerted effort to step out of the house for a change in scenery.
A 2018 study found from interviewing 2,000 employees and managers around the world that two-thirds of remote workers did not feel engaged with their work; many of them reported being unable to get productive one-on-ones with their teams. A mere 5% of remote workers surveyed said they could see themselves working with their present employer well into the future. “When you don’t see or hear your colleagues over a long period of time, you can become less committed to your team and organization — and start looking for your next opportunity — since no one is looking over your shoulder while you job search,” Dan Schawbel, author and partner and research director at Future Workplace, writes for Harvard Business Review (HBR).
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Whether a work-from-home arrangement works or not — for both, employee and employer — largely depends on the kind of job. If a job enables an employee to be independent and carry out their duties according to their own time and process without needing to collaborate with others, then working from home can result in an increase in productivity. But, say, in a newsroom, wherein journalists have to talk and collaborate with each other constantly, a remote working policy might not work as well, since it can hamper communication, which can ultimately affect productivity.
Managers, for example, often worry about remote employees’ productivity and focus, and whether communication and collaboration will take a hit when work is taken into personal spaces, according to HBR. In response, many companies, such as Yahoo!, IBM Reddit and Best Buy, have even reversed their work-from-home policies, requiring workers to be present in the office every day.
“When our company eliminated working from home several months ago, it was disappointing and not fun as a manager to explain to some of my permanently remote employees. But as a leader who craves human interaction, it has been one of the greatest things we’ve done,” Kiah Erlich, former senior director at Honeywell, a Fortune 500 U.S.-based consumer goods company, told Schawbel. “People are actually in the office now. What once was a painful conference call is now a collaborative white-boarding session. Instead of more emails, people get out of their chair and walk over to my office. It is a beautiful thing to see, and it has not only improved productivity but brought the team closer together.”
Managers worrying about productivity can also end up exercising control and micromanaging the employees who work from home, which in turn can reduce morale and hamper productivity, according to a team of researchers from Harvard Business School and Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business writing for HBR. But if a job does allow for a work-from-home option, then complete autonomy and flexibility can enhance productivity, the team concludes: “A key takeaway from our research is that if a work setting is ripe for remote work — that is, the job is fairly independent and the employee knows how to do their job well,” remote work can be good for both company and employee.”
While work from home is largely a good option for employees and can significantly improve their quality of life, whether or not remote working can go hand-in-hand with employers’ needs would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Discipline on the part of the employee, and trust on the part of the employer, can make work-from-home arrangements live up to their hype — for all parties.