The concept of the average schmoe working from home first found a footing in reality in 1979, well before Slack invaded our lives. Writing in The Atlantic a few years back, Jerry Useem explained that the initial reasoning for allowing some employees to do this was simply because there was too much traffic weighing down IBM’s office mainframe:
“In 1979, IBM was putting its stamp on the American landscape. For 20 years, it had been hiring the greats of modernism to erect buildings where scientists and salespeople could work shoulder-to-shoulder commanding the burgeoning computer industry. But that year, one of its new facilities — the Santa Teresa Laboratory, in Silicon Valley — tried an experiment. To ease a logjam at the office mainframe, it installed boxy, green-screened terminals in the homes of five employees, allowing them to work from home.”
A little less than 40 years later, however, things are looking rather different. A 2017 article in the New York Times referenced a Gallup poll that found that “43 percent of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely, according to the survey of more than 15,000 adults.”
And perhaps surprisingly, it’s working out for some companies. In a 2017 Forbes article, writer Larry Alton cites a 2014 study in which the Chinese travel website CTrip compared the productivity of employees who were allowed to work remotely versus those who worked in the office. “With all other factors being equal, the remote workers ended up making 13.5 percent more calls than their comparable office workers, which is the equivalent of almost a full extra day’s worth of work in a given week,” Alton explained.
With that in mind, and in a day and age where almost everything can be done via computer, what excuse does my employer — or any employer — have for not allowing me to complete my work while comfortably seated atop the porcelain bowl in my home?
“The main reason employers don’t like to allow employees to work from home is that building an effective team — and the teamwork that’s necessary for the accomplishment of goals — is more difficult when employees are working remotely,” says Susan M. Heathfield, an HR expert with more than 30 years of experience.
The problem, Heathfield suggests, is that despite the fact that technology enables most of the necessary communication and interaction to get the job done, most employees aren’t yet good enough at using said technology to interact with their co-workers on team projects. “They aren’t skilled at building relationships with coworkers they don’t see in person. The remote worker misses out on the daily water-cooler conversations that employees engage in at the office.”
In the same 2017 article in The Atlantic, Useem suggests a similar reason for why working from home isn’t always more efficient:
“But other types of work hinge on what might be called ‘collaborative efficiency’ — the speed at which a group successfully solves a problem. And distance seems to drag collaborative efficiency down. Why? The short answer is that collaboration requires communication. And the communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest and highest-bandwidth connection is — for the moment, anyway — still the office.”
The psychological consequences of working from home should also be taken into account. I once spoke to Michael J. Zigmond, a professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh, who cited studies of solitary confinement in mice that have indicated there being fewer synapses in the brains of isolated mice compared to socialized mice. Stuart Grassian — an expert in solitary confinement who I spoke to for the same article — agreed that while working from home isn’t nearly as damaging as being in solitary, he wouldn’t be surprised if some of the same effects of being deprived of social stimuli manifested themselves in a work-at-home setting.
“You can see this neurologically in prisoners in solitary confinement after just a few days,” Grassian explained. “A person who is alert shows alpha waves on their EEG exam. A person who’s been in solitary will shift to slow-wave patterns into what’s described as a stupor or delirium.”
Which, obviously, isn’t going to be great for your performance.
Beyond the potential psychological issues and communicative obstacles, Heathfield explains that the most clear cut reason your employer doesn’t want you working from home is simply because they don’t trust you. “Many managers still believe that they must see an employee to know that they’re actually working,” says Heathfield. “This is a challenge, because the deliverables of most jobs these days are hard to measure. Consequently, managers aren’t comfortable that the employee is actually contributing when the employee works offsite.”
Frankly, that’s kind of a weird stance to take, considering that the startup world, with its office massages, meditation sessions, ping pong and myriad other perks, offers far more distractions than the average millenial abode.
Now excuse me, I have a yoga class in the break room.