Judging from the news over the last 6 months, working from home (WFH) is here to stay, forever changing the way we work. Praised on both the employer’s side – providing continuity of operations, proving that employees care even when they are not on site – and employee’s side – more flexibility in organising one’s time and taking care of the family or balancing work and life.
Yet, research on the topic is less enthusiastic and unanimous. Most research suggest a temporary boost of WFH in terms of productivity, primarily attributable to a novelty factor – and the well-known Hawthorne effect in psychology, suggesting that the mere awareness of being observed can lead to a boost in productivity.
Mid to long term, however, the negative consequences of working from home range from higher turnover due to a lack of identification with, and commitment to, the company, and lower creativity as serendipity at work is often what creates sparks. In addition, working from home requires more rigour, self-motivation and self-discipline skills, a lack of which negatively affects productivity.
In fact, the main issue of WFH is that it is impossible to reproduce many of the aspects of in-office life that contribute to productivity: chance encounters around the coffee machine, soft talk at the cafeteria, networking…
And contrary to expectations, corporate culture is not shaped by large big events that gathers all employees once or twice a year around fun times or CEO speeches, but rather by everyday exchanges. Research also ignores an important point: WFH works because it relies on in-office ties and socialisation, that have happened in the weeks, months, or years prior to the start of the current crisis.
In other words, there is organisational inertia, that help people find their mark, as they rely on the automaticity and experience build through an in-office experience.
Ultimately, the core question will be one of competitive advantage
Are companies faring better those that allow working from home as the norm, be it part or full time?
Or will those that create a strong in-office corporate culture outperform? Currently, most knowledge-economy companies have no choice but to have everyone WFH. But if this becomes a choice rather than a mandate, the question of the performance of WFH in highly competitive industries will become a prominent one.
The answer may differ from one industry to another. In industries where salaries are low and the possibilities of getting a job promotion are limited, working from home may become a valued and sought-after intangible benefit.
But in industries where the human factor matters, and safety and secrecy are crucial, in person meetings and working from the office may resume as soon as reasonably possible. This is already the case in parts of the finance industry, for instance, where deal-making relies on trust that is harder to reproduce online.