Working from home allows people to create a new version of balance—a way of blending work with the rest of their lives (Getty Images/Justin Paget)
At the moment, many workers worldwide are living an alternative reality—one that consists of working from home. And it’s fairly easy to imagine that this new reality could even last beyond COVID-19, at least for some workers, some of the time.
In fact, according to a COVID-19 Pulse Survey from PwC, 49 per cent of US chief financial officers are planning to make remote work a permanent option for roles that allow it.
Certainly, the benefits of remote work are clear and documented. It reduces our carbon footprint and stress levels, for one. And it certainly makes it easier to care for the health and safety of the workforce.
Still, not everyone is convinced it’s a catch-all solution. As Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, points out, “Employers are generally of two minds about working from home—it’s not a one-way street. The same goes for employees.”
Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of remote work, according to those in the know.
PROS OF REMOTE WORK
Reduced facilities costs: The lack of a physical workplace can mean big savings on infrastructure. As CPA Lior Zehtser, co-founder of online accounting firm ConnectCPA, explains, “Since we don’t have to pay for rent and utilities, we are able to pass those savings on through salaries and wages, annual retreats and other culture-based activities, such as prizes and outings. Of course, since we won’t be gathering for a while, we’ve turned to team-wide Zoom calls, hangouts and games—with prizes.”
Reduced work-related expenses: Just as employers save on facilities, workers save on work-related costs. As one U.S. article explains, people who normally drive to work could save up to US$160 every month by working remotely. They can also reduce their clothing and food expenses.
Casual atmosphere: Many workers enjoy not having to get dressed for work in the morning. And the time saved on getting ready and commuting can be used for more productive work, says Daniel Stone, chief technical officer for Luminari, a career management platform. (As a veteran remote worker, Stone knows whereof he speaks: although he lives in Ottawa, he has been working remotely for the Toronto firm for the past year and a half.)
A new version of balance: For many, this is the biggest plus of remote working. As Eileen Chadnick, principal of Big Cheese Coaching, puts it, “Working from home allows people to create a new version of balance—a way of blending work with the rest of their lives.” Stone agrees: “I can manage my time in the way I think is optimal,” he says. “In an office, there’s a more explicit social requirement to be on site for the entire day.”
For Zehtser, flexibility goes hand in hand with trust. “We go to great lengths to try and hire the right person and culture fit. Because of this, we are comfortable providing flexibility in scheduling.”
Engaging workers with other responsibilities: Because of the potential for flexibility, Stanford says remote work makes it possible for employers to hire people who might otherwise be finding it hard to juggle paid work with family responsibilities. “Employers might think, ‘If I let that person work from home and offer some flexibility in the hours, they’ll be more interested in this type of work’,” he says.
Zehtser says that, at ConnectCPA, a lot of team members have kids/family responsibilities. “But, at our firm, as long as the work gets done at a high level, we provide the flexibility to make juggling family responsibilities much easier.”
CONS OF REMOTE WORK
Many jobs cannot be done at home: As Stanford explains, remote work is generally suited for managers, professionals and workers performing clerical, administrative work and some types of sales or human services work. “But other jobs—construction workers, labourers, machine operators, drivers, a lot of human service work—cannot be done from home. So, there’s a big divide.”
Facetime culture: While some employers are fine with the concept of remote work, Stanford says others “are leery that with employees working away from the direct eye of supervision, they might not get the kind of productivity and performance that they expect.”
This concern is one borne out by hard numbers: In a March survey of HR execs by the Gartner IT research firm, 76 per cent said the top employee complaint during the pandemic has been “concerns from managers about the productivity or engagement of their teams when remote.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that some people who are now working remotely aren't doing so because their employer likes it, but because it’s become a necessity to get things done. An internet meme puts it this way: “You are not working from home; you are at your home, during a crisis, trying to work.”
Losing the spark: Working at home sometimes means missing out on spontaneous, organic, unplanned conversations. For example, as Stone explains, “You might arrive at the office in the morning and have an idea as you are talking to someone. And, in tech, every day we’re trying to create something new, so those ideas are important. But with remote work, you lose that spark. You have to find ways to create it.” (The same also applies to team meetings: Michael Kravshik, founder of Luminari, points out, “If you want to have a team brainstorm, it’s just not the same.”)
Juggling act: Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, you may not be able to work from home. As Zehtser explains, “If you have a young child who needs a lot of attention and you’re the only caregiver, it will be impossible to get high-quality work done.” (He adds, however, that even those in physical offices are sometimes unable to work due to caregiving duties.)
Isolation: As Zehtser explains, this may be one of the biggest drawbacks to remote work. “There’s the danger of losing the team/company culture that would be present in a physical office,” he says. “Employers have to work harder to create a culture that may form more easily in an office setting.” (That’s why, at ConnectCPA, team members are encouraged to get out of their home throughout the day, either to attend to personal matters or, in normal times, to work out of various locations.)
Networking difficulties: Obviously, if you cannot meet people in person, it’s more difficult to make new contacts. “It’s limiting,” says Kravshik. “If you want to build a network and a career, you can’t be working at home all the time. You have to be out there.”
A QUESTION OF “IT DEPENDS”
Ultimately, comfort with working from home may have a lot to do with the type of work you do and the way you like to do it. As Chadnick points out, some people find it easier to get things done at home, while others have a greater need for a feeling of connection. “While it might seem that they would be fine on their own based on their work responsibilities, they actually prefer the structure of going to the office and having people around. It gives them the energy they need.”
At Luminari, that energy is very much valued. “Whenever this isolation is lifted, I know my team is just scratching at the walls to get back to the office,” says Kravshik. “Everybody wants to see people in person. And we’ve got a very young team that’s used to living a lot of their loves digitally. So, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if COVID-19 actually halts the move towards remote working in a certain way. Not forever. But I think a lot of people have gained a deeper appreciation for the value of human contact in person. That was maybe slipping away as more of our lives go digital.”
MAKE THE MOST OF WORKING REMOTELY
Find out how to stay productive, even if you have the kids in tow. Keep your boundaries, carve out a schedule and learn how to lead a remote team. Plus, follow the right etiquette and best practices for using remote tools such as Zoom.