What We Now Know are the Negative Effects of Work from Home

One of my favorite rockers Ozzy Osbourne famously sang, “Mama, I’m coming home to work.” OK. Maybe not that last part. But I’m sure Mama didn’t think he’d be staying at home this long for work.

Back when COVID-19 triggered a massive exodus for workers from the office to their homes, many organizations found a silver lining to the disruption. They found out what their mettle was made of. They found resilience.

Working from home was all the rage. I personally read article after article glorifying the new normal of remote work — and it certainly does have its upside. At the beginning of the pandemic, many companies were concerned that remote working would be damaging to productivity. But luckily, most were proven wrong: in a survey of 9,000 managers and employees, an overwhelming 82% of senior executives reported seeing productivity levels either hold steady or increase as a result of telecommuting.

Companies were also hip to another positive byproduct of the work-from-home shift: cost savings. Overhead expenses — like rent, utilities, cleaning services, food services, building maintenance — would be drastically reduced. But in the move to a decentralized workplace, organizations may have overlooked a few bumps in the road.

The empty offices and collaboration challenges have made it a bit colder of a workplace if you will. You can stay warm underneath a technology patchwork quilt of Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but eventually, you’re going to have to address some of the negatives of working remotely. Here are a few commonly cited drawbacks, backed up by recent survey data…

Productivity is a Moving Target

Some research suggests productivity has increased (or maintained) and other research suggests productivity has tapered off with remote work measures. That speaks to a disparity among companies and perhaps diminishing returns as employees continue to work from home.

In an alarming study released by Vocon in late September, 40% of executives are seeing decreases in productivity, a clear shift from when nearly 60% rated productivity as “excellent” in April.

Megan Spinos, director of strategy for Vocon, said of the poll, “That was a really big indicator for us that things were starting to fracture. Companies were having a really hard time keeping their culture together and a really, really difficult time onboarding employees.”

In a quarterly survey of 150 C-level executives, 40% said that social distancing was the greatest hindrance to productivity, whereas 37% cited remote work.

The conclusion to be drawn is that productivity results vary and may taper over time, with key remote work technology helping the cause and social distancing hurting the cause.

Stunted Creativity and Innovation

So, productivity has floated — with some seeing an uptick and others playing catch-up — but it tells only part of the story. Michael Parke, assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, said:

“It seems that employees are able to hunker down and get less distracted while working remotely, and they can even enjoy less or no commute times, dressing casually, and take better care of home chores. However, the cost seems to be a loss of sense of purpose, which at work, is largely driven through strong and cohesive relationships and seeing how your tasks have impact on others.”

Working from home means that it’s more difficult to bond with colleagues. The intangible of face-to-face interaction with like-minded co-workers creates synergy — and without it, there’s a negative impact on a business’s ability to innovate, according to Microsoft.

That report says that, in 2019, up to 56% of leaders felt that their companies were innovative with their products and services. It was only true for 40% of respondents in 2020. When employees are not in a physical space together, brainstorming suffers; thus, new ideas are fewer.

The Inextricable Link between Workplace Culture and Worker Sanity

Workers love the idea of working from home and the flexible workplace. Data has supported that notion for a decade. But, if it’s no longer a choice, workers might struggle to stay sharp — some might struggle to maintain their sanity. They’ll strain to separate work from home when work is at home.

The Chief Executive Group asked 500 CEOs what their biggest challenges were in managing the sudden transition to remote work. The top concern, cited by 60% of respondents, was managing culture. What a hard thing to do, right? Maintain morale and workers’ mental health in a forced work-from-home situation. A Fast Company article alludes to four major long-term psychological effects of continued remote work:

  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Lack of face-to-face interaction

What’s the quick fix, the magic antidote? It may be too early to really home in on a solution for the culture problem. It looks like a problem the business community is aware of and certainly keen to solve. A little more time may be needed before we get to see an accurate report card.

Looking on the Bright Side

The stigma on remote work has disappeared. Companies and employees alike have found it an extremely workable solution. Another bright spot is that the investments businesses had made in technology that enabled a flexible workplace are really paying dividends now. Video conferencing is second hat. Remote access to information — a capability provided by M-Files — has taken center stage and will become a long-overdue priority.

The silver lining is summed up best by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom:

“In short, we’ve paid the startup costs for learning how to work from home, making it far easier to continue.”