We followed the science on COVID-19. Now, as the end of the pandemic draws closer, it’s time to follow the science on working from home.
The verdict is clear: For many jobs—particularly collaborative, high skill level, high-value roles—working from home simply doesn’t work, and we shouldn’t confuse a temporary abnormal with a new normal.
The pandemic will not be ‘the death of the office,’ as some have suggested, but working from home also won’t become entirely a thing of the past. Many workers wouldn’t want it that way because they enjoy the freedom and flexibility it gives them. The solution for the future is a structured hybrid model, acknowledging that working from home doesn’t work long-term for most jobs, while still giving workers flexibility. One way to do that would be to allocate time slots—perhaps specific days—of in-office working for all employees to maintain workplace productivity and collaboration, while also allowing working from home to continue outside those hours.
Professor Tom Eisenmann of Harvard Business School told me in March that, because remote work is going to become a much bigger part of our lives, we need to solve the problem of maintaining a culture when people are “scattered all over the world.”
That problem explains why it took a pandemic for working from home to become mainstream, despite it being an old idea. As long ago as 1970, Alvin Toffler predicted a shift to working from home, as opposed to working in offices and factories.
Half a century later, his prediction came true. Before the pandemic, 20% of workers did all or most of their work from home, an analysis by the Pew Research Center found. That figure rose to more than 70% during the pandemic, the analysis—based on 5,858 U.S. adults—found.
For some, remote work leads to increased productivity, as well as job satisfaction, particularly for those working in technical jobs that require minimal teamwork. In certain industries, this has been the case for some time. Stack Overflow, a New York-based community website for computer programmers, found in 2017 that 53% of 64,000 developers surveyed ranked remote work as one of their five most-valued work benefits.
But the science tells us that workers like them are in a minority and, however topical their case is, we should be cautious about applying such a drastic change across our economies.
Since before the pandemic began I have been assessing multi-disciplinary collaboration in a work-from-home environment for my PhD research at Imperial College, London. Individuals employed on creative projects in virtual teams reported feeling more like a ‘worker’, and less like a member of a family. One respondent said of employers: “They don’t see how early you show up in front of your computer…They don’t see how hard I’m working.”
But more damaging than the effects of working from home on individuals, is what it does to teams. Remote work often breaks the mechanisms that allow a team to work together creatively. Studies have found that the best creative work occurs when a team is in a state of flow, or focuses its collective attention on a single problem together, known as ‘team flow’. But remote work makes it harder to keep everyone engaged in solving that problem. In my study, many respondents said it was hard to gauge when a team member had zoned out during a Zoom call.
Read more: How to Work from Home Without Burning Out
There is currently no digital technology that can reliably create ‘flow’ remotely, and we shouldn’t pretend there is. If it did exist, it wouldn’t have taken the necessity of pandemic restrictions for us to work remotely—managers and employees would have already embraced it.
There’s other evidence that points to this problem. Utah-based virtual whiteboard app Lucidspark found that 75% of 1,000 respondents surveyed in September last year said collaboration was the thing that suffered most when working remotely.
HR departments are now paying the price for this isolation and lack of collaboration, with 2021 already being called the year of the ‘Great Resignation.’ The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the annual quit rate was 25.5% in 2020 and millions of workers have resigned in 2021.
If employers want to hang on to their staff, they need to find ways to maintain the work-life balance employees enjoyed while working from home. This needs to happen while reintegrating them back into the office, since it is clear from my research that fully autonomous working from home across all industries is neither desirable nor sustainable.
That’s why we need to carve out a third way, where teams that thrive on collaboration are given mandatory times each week when everyone is expected to be in the office. This structured hybrid model is different to hybrid working, whereby employees can come and go to the office as they please.
By combining flexible hours with time slots for compulsory office attendance, we can grant the freedom that white-collar workers have enjoyed so much over the pandemic. It would also prevent the rise of a two-tier model, where those who are present in the office get ahead, while those who prefer to work from home get left behind.
This doesn’t mean a return to the misery of daily commutes. Structured hybrid work could allow workers to travel outside of peak times—removing much of the pain of commuting—as long as they are present for the compulsory time slot for collective in-office working.
The evidence is clear that, for the majority of workers in most industries, working from home doesn’t work. But we can still take the lessons we have learned about what today’s—and tomorrow’s—employees want, and make that part of the new normal in offices post-pandemic.