The crown jewel of contemporary work-life balance is the ability to do your work from home, but are we doing it right?
At this very moment, I am pacing around my kitchen island, sipping coffee brewed in my own coffeepot. Thousands of Americans are likely doing the same, even as they check in with colleagues and start important calls: While still more the exception than the rule, telecommuting is unmistakably on the rise. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 37% of US workers say they’ve worked from home at some point—a huge jump from the 9% who said the same thing in 1995.
In addition to working in pajamas, flexible hours offer clear benefits: Companies that encourage remote arrangements have seen increases in productivity and decreases in office overhead costs, to say nothing of the numerous benefits it presents for working parents. In ten years, companies may no longer want to shell out big bucks for brick-and-mortar offices when we have Slack, email, Cisco, and Google Hangouts. With so many quantifiable upsides, it’s no surprise that working from home has already been heralded by some as the “future of work.”
But there is a big difference between enjoying a flexible work schedule and working from home all the time. So let’s not eulogize traditional office culture just yet.
Despite what you may have heard about millennials, I don’t need office hover boards or in-house seltzer machines or a shuffleboard court to keep me happy. What I need from my work environment is what most people need, regardless of generation: an atmosphere that is intellectually stimulating, collaborative, and respectful of time. And that’s hard to get when your coworkers are scattered to the winds, which in turn makes a strong case for everyone sucking it up and heading into work, at least most of the time.
The case for old-fashioned office culture
Slack and similar remote-messaging apps are immediate and efficient, but there are times when a text-based conversation simply won’t cut it. Many of my most productive moments have been the product of a spontaneous, face-to-face conversation. As my colleague Akshat Rathi pointed out earlier this year, research shows that these so-called “water-cooler” conversations provide fertile grounds for ideation and bonding.
Employees who feel invested in each other are also more likely to be engaged in their work. “Engaged employees are more attentive and vigilant,” Jim Harter, a chief scientist at Gallup Research, told the Harvard Business Review in 2013. “They look out for the needs of their coworkers and the overall enterprise, because they personally ‘own’ the result of their work and that of the organization.”
At the same time, behavioral science tells us that humans place more significance on body language and vocal tone than text, making miscommunication by messaging app or email common. Even with the dizzying array of emoticons at our disposal, it’s hard to digitally convey authentic emotion or emphasis. There’s nothing worse than inadvertent office passive aggression.
Which brings me to my last point: work-life balance, the 21st century professional’s white whale. The same technology that makes work more accessible for everyone has seriously blurred the lines between work and life. The app that allows me to help coordinate breaking news coverage while at the grocery story now tethers me to my desk, even when I’m miles (or continents) away. The only way to actually disconnect nowadays is to travel somewhere without cell service.
By the same token, working from home on a consistent basis means your home is literally also your office. My kitchen table, a sacred space in my mother’s home, is just one more flat surface to rest a laptop in my apartment. That’s not balance, that’s extra weight.
“Technology now sets no work boundaries,” Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, told the Atlantic last year. With no clock to punch out, many people have become resigned to the fact that they are de facto always on the clock. It certainly lends new meaning to the adage “having it all.”
(Of course, it’s important to remember that pursuing work-life balance is a privilege to begin with—workers with lower socioeconomic status are more likely to work multiple jobs for lower pay, and have far less scheduling control or ability to work from home.)
Have your pajamas and wear them too
When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting back in 2013, the internet exploded. Many chastised Mayer—herself a mother—for creating a de facto parental penalty. Mayer defended herself a few months later, noting that “people are more productive when they’re alone… but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” Meanwhile others, including Best Buy and Hewlett Packard, took steps to follow her lead.
Three years later the debate is far from over, but the answer may ultimately be as mundane as moderation. The remote office may not be the utopian future foretold by Forbes, even while flexible work hours are great for a subset of highly motivated employees with children or health problems or a prohibitively difficult commute. Occasionally, the ability to work from home (or the beach) provides a needed respite from the 9-to-5 routine and a well-deserved recharging period.
But interacting with my colleagues is one of the main reasons I get up in the morning—they make me a better journalist and a happier person. And since our camaraderie just doesn’t ever seem to translate as well over a video conference feed, no matter how fast the connection, I’m usually glad the pants I put on in the morning are not made of flannel.
And besides, I’m out of coffee beans.