Let’s Take the Heat out of WFH

OpenAI CEO Altman calls work-from-home an “experiment” that was a “mistake”. Well, the conversation about WFH has become increasingly contentious.

More and more corporate leaders default to what they’ve known pre-pandemic and order people back to the office. Examples include Bob Iger at Disney and Apple’s Tim Cook. In knee-jerk reactions, WFH proponents act up like the defenders of worker rights, bashing leaders on social media for asking staff to return to offices. 

A couple of weeks a go, a bank CEO asked for my take on WFH – here it is: it depends. We need a differentiated view to avoid falling into blunt statements of either for and against WFH. Let’s explore some of the benefits and risks of WFH from the perspectives of individual contributors, people leaders, and organizations.

Benefits for individual contributors

The most obvious: WFH allows us to work from anywhere, eliminating the need for daily commutes and reducing the costs associated with working in an office. It allows for greater flexibility in terms of working hours, which is especially beneficial for those with caregiving responsibilities. If you hired during the pandemic offering remote work and you now returning to an in-person work policy, you should consider the additional cost for employees (easily tens of thousands).  

Done right, WFH improves life balance, allowing us to better manage time and energy. If I can spend two hours a day in the gym, rather than in traffic jams, I’d be thankful and embrace a healthier lifestyle. Another benefit: WFH provides opportunities to develop new skills, such as self-discipline, time management, and effective communication through digital channels. These new skills make individuals more competitive in the job market and help them to advance in their careers.

Risks of WFH for individual contributors

The Chief Learning Officer of a Big 4 company recently told me that “rubbing shoulders” with partners and observing them in client interactions is critical for new hires, to learn skills and understand the culture. Remote work makes it more difficult for individuals to build these relationships. WFH can also lead to decreased visibility and recognition. Individuals who work remotely may find it harder to showcase their achievements and contributions, which can lead to them being overlooked for promotions or other career opportunities. 

Another WFH risk is that is can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection from colleagues, which might result in reduced collaboration, decreased job satisfaction, and potentially mental health issues like burnout. 

Benefits of WFH for people leaders

People leaders, such as managers and team leaders, can benefit from WFH in several ways. WFH opportunities help improve employee satisfaction and retention by offering greater flexibility and better life balance. Also, it allows people leaders to tap into a wider talent pool, as they are no longer limited to hiring individuals who are geographically close to the office; a benefit especially when hiring for roles that are in demand, when operating in regions with an undersupply of talent, or when you build a business in a niche industry.

Risks of WFH for people leaders

One of the biggest risks of WFH for people leaders is the potential for decreased visibility and control. When working remotely, monitoring productivity and ensuring that everyone is working towards the same goals needs new approaches. Additionally, remote work can make it more challenging to build strong relationships and foster a positive team culture, which can negatively impact performance and collaboration.

A word of caution: if you don’t have an intentionally created and carefully maintained company culture that is built on in-person routines, don’t even think about using culture as an argument to mandate people back to the office. Don’t try to cover a need for more control with an argument for culture. Or you run the risk of people calling BS. 

Another risk is that remote work can make it more difficult to identify and address issues such as burnout or mental health concerns. Without the ability to observe team members in person, it can be harder to identify warning signs and provide support when needed.

Benefits of WFH for organizations

When done right, WFH can lead to increased job satisfaction, better work results and higher levels of productivity. It also reduces overhead costs associated with maintaining office spaces, including rent, utilities, and office supplies. And remote work helps organizations to become more resilient, as it allows them to quickly adapt to changing circumstances, such as natural disasters or pandemics.

Risks of WFH for organizations

One of the biggest risks of WFH is the potential for decreased collaboration and innovation. Remote work can make it harder for employees to share ideas and work together, which can lead to a lack of creativity and innovation – one of the big arguments brought by Iger and Cook for bringing people back to the office. 

WFH makes it more challenging to build and maintain a strong company culture, which is key to employee satisfaction, retention, and performance. Without the ability to gather employees in a physical office space, it can be challenging to create a shared sense of purpose and community, which can negatively impact team morale and ultimately impact business outcomes.

Also, it might be harder to monitor and manage employees, especially if they are working across different time zones or in different countries. This can lead to a lack of accountability and potentially even unethical behavior, such as cheating or fraud. There have been cases of employees working two full-time jobs at the same time, making two salaries… And there is a risk of loss of intellectual property or confidential data if proper security measures are not put in place.

So, what’s next?

Leaders, individual contributors, and organizations as a whole can massively benefit from WFH elements in their culture and performance. There will be organizations that bring the best of both worlds together. They create hybrid work environments that allow them to maximize the benefits of WFH while cautiously navigating and minimizing its risks.

These businesses will use WFH as a cultural differentiator, attracting the talent they need and want, making it a privilege to work from home, rather than a right. 

It takes leaders with vision to adjust management systems, harness new leadership skills, and help everyone see the upsides and downsides, to manage them in the best possible way for any given business. 

Main Image by Beth Jnr.