Working from home was an occasional perk before the pandemic, with only 5% of Americans doing so, but by April 2020, 37% of the workforce was fully remote. Today, it’s the norm, and it looks like it’s here to stay – despite some companies pushing employees to return to the office. In the US, 16% of businesses already operate fully remotely, according to statistics published by Forbes, and 98% of Americans say they would like “to be able to work remotely at least part of the time.” Although remote work provides benefits such as flexibility and autonomy, some employees are choosing to go back to the office. To find out why they are doing so, we spoke to people across the US. Here’s what they said:
Too many distractions
Kevin Harper, a managing consultant at Fruition IT, knows remote work isn’t for him. He worked from home during the Covid lockdowns and hated it. “I see my home as a place to relax and unwind and my office as a place to work,” he says. “I can’t concentrate at home because it’s full of distractions and things I would rather do than work.”
He isn’t the only one. Upgraded Points, a travel experience company, surveyed more than 1,000 remote workers in the US in February 2023 and found that 74% were scrolling social media and 71% were cleaning the house while on the clock. Judy Schoenberg, who co-founded Evolve Me, a company devoted to helping women in mid-career to advance, can relate. “It’s easy to get distracted at home with all the other tempting things to do,” Schoenberg says, “and one too many trips to clean up the kitchen can blow your day!”
The same survey shows that remote workers also watch TV, shop online, run errands, take naps, have sex, and drink alcohol while they’re supposed to be working. So it’s unsurprising that a Stanford report found that fully remote work results in lower productivity than on-site work. Harper says, “I wasn’t able to get into the zone, so I was back in the office full-time at the earliest suitable opportunity.”
Missing in-person contact
Collaboration also tends to suffer when working remotely. When Harper was forced to work fully remotely, he didn’t enjoy it as much. He missed the social interaction his job provided before the pandemic. “I love being around my colleagues and find I work best when I am with others,” he says.
Remote work expert and professor at Utah State University Paul Hill says, “Some remote workers find that the lack of face-to-face interaction and direct collaboration can negatively impact their job satisfaction and overall wellbeing.”
This was the experience of Glen Guyton, a cultural competency trainer and speaker on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), who works at home and in the office. “I like working from home, but it can be isolating,” he says. “You miss the water-cooler casual conversations.” Such chats have benefits too, according to research conducted by the University of California - Santa Cruz. Small talk, including the back-and-forth that happens naturally at the water cooler or coffee machine, is associated with higher levels of enjoyment for staff working on a task together.
Schoenberg and Linda Lautenberg, her co-founder at Evolve Me, say that better brainstorming happens when they are together in person. Schoenberg appreciates the bursts of creativity that result when she and Lautenberg work side-by-side, or when there are other people around. The pair worked from home during the pandemic but decided to meet at a coworking space in Manhattan after the restrictions had been lifted. “We missed the ideas that happen spontaneously when we’re sitting next to each other,” she says. “I like working in the office because I get the community and team environment that’s inspiring and motivating to me. When Linda and I work together in person, we’re more efficient and focused, and we hold each other accountable. I’m more motivated when working with others, so I missed working with my co-founder on a regular basis.”
Learning on the job
Another element affected by remote work is learning new skills. It can be difficult to glean knowledge from more experienced employees when we’re trying to grasp all the information through a screen rather than in person. “One of the biggest concerns I have about working from home is the lack of learning opportunities,” says Harper. “I do not see how, even with modern collaboration tools, a workplace can be collaborative without the moments that happen when you are around others.”
Struggling to disconnect at home
While Guyton misses watercooler moments, he finds the office environment distracting. Yet working from home isn’t always sunshine and roses either. Guyton confesses that his biggest struggle when working from home is time management. “I was too focused for too long working at home and it took a physical toll,” he says. “I have to build in intentional health breaks, physical and mental. I bought a timer to break up my work sessions.”
Separating work life from home life is important, but it can be tricky when you’re working remotely. “When you work from home, the line between work and home has no clear transition. I was stressing myself out by answering emails late at night and allowing work to always be present,” Guyton says.
Harper couldn’t separate the two worlds either, and this was another reason he decided to go back to the office. “Having a clear divide with my time in the office being for work and my time at home being for family and hobbies has meant that I can be at my best for both rather than trying to juggle them at the same time and in the same environment,” he says.
Is hybrid working the answer?
There are strong arguments to support remote work – and the same is true for office work. “It’s crucial to understand that remote work, while beneficial in certain aspects, is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Hill. “Each individual and organization has unique needs and working styles, and a nuanced approach is required to optimize job satisfaction and productivity in today’s diverse work environments.”
That may be why a growing number of employers offer a hybrid model of working, and why staff find it attractive. The EY Future Workplace Index surveyed more than 500 companies in the US and found that 72% have adopted a hybrid/remote approach. A Gallup Workplace poll makes it clear that hybrid is the desired method of work in 2023, with nine out of 10 remote-capable employees preferring “some remote work flexibility, with the majority preferring hybrid” work. “This approach addresses the need for direct collaboration and social interaction,” Hill says, “while still offering the flexibility many employees value.”
Schoenberg and Lautenberg started their company just before the pandemic but quickly went remote with the imposed lockdowns. “We successfully launched our business this way and, at first, we both liked the fact that remote work cut out our commute time,” Schoenberg says, “but after a few years, we started to miss the energy of working side by side.” Guyton appreciates aspects of remote work too. “Remote work is great and has helped us hire better-qualified and more diverse staff, but remote teams do need time to reconnect and create a thoughtful organizational culture,” he says.
What the future looks like
Companies understand their employees want freedom and flexibility, and according to a study by McKinsey & Company, when given the chance to work flexibly, 87% of the 25,000 Americans polled said they’d take it. Employees in the US are no longer in Covid-survival mode forced to work at home. Instead, they’re demanding flexible options and schedules. Whether that means working at home, in the office, in a coworking space, or on the beach of a remote island, it’s worth considering what will work best for companies and their workforces.
Photo: Thomas Decamps for Welcome to the Jungle
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