When It Comes To Work, Home Isn’t Where Our Heart Is

June 22, 2020

It’s astonishing to think that just three months ago, the business world was highly reluctant to allow most employees to work from home. Perhaps because not being present in the office every day was seen as undermining to longstanding tradition – or because leaders feared productivity would cave – US companies allowed just 12% of Americans to work remotely at least one day per month prior to the COVID pandemic.

Forced into it or not, workplace leaders have already done an about-face on remote work. People not only made the transition to working from home look easy, they also sustained their performance. And this remarkable turn of events has influenced many companies to start considering whether most of their employees should ever return to an office.

We surely know that savvy Chief Financial Officers have begun eyeing the sizeable cost-saves which could come from dumping expensive workplace real estate. And some companies have already pulled the trigger on making the work from home experiment permanent.

Square and Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, recently told employees at both companies that anyone currently working remotely may continue doing so “forever.” Dell Computer now expects half of its 160,000 workers will never go back to a traditional workplace, and the same goes for Nationwide Insurance Company’s 27,000 employees. The firm’s CEO, Kirt Walker, has plans to sell off 16 of his firm’s 20 buildings.

While the work-from-home ship has set sail at these organizations, the rest of us might be wise to consider whether the results from the first three months of remote working are indeed sustainable.

Tied to my own concerns that companies might be moving too quickly to normalize working from home, I recently met with Gallup’s long-time Chief Scientist, Dr. Jim Harter. With appropriate social distancing, we sat down to discuss the key factors companies might consider before assigning any employee to remote work.  Harter’s current research has some rather surprising insights – including an invaluable conclusion:

What People Think In Their Minds Is Often Different Than What’s In Their Hearts.

Before the pandemic, Gallup data showed 62% of US workers dreamed of working from home at least some of the time. But after three months of real experience with remote working, that percentage has declined. Their latest survey found that 47% of people currently working from home are looking forward to returning to their office.

“Some people underestimated how difficult it would be to work every day without seeing people in the flesh,” Harter told me. “As much as some employees love autonomy and being able to get right down to work, they also miss seeing their colleagues – and it takes a toll.”

Most US Jobs Simply Can’t Be Done Remotely

Ongoing research by University of Chicago economist, Jonathan Dingel, finds that “two-thirds of US jobs cannot plausibly be performed from home.” Gallup’s own estimate of the true work-from-home potential is nearly identical.

Loneliness Is A Factor

A 2018 Cigna survey found that almost half of Americans were feeling alone or left out. Now that many people are working virtually, social isolation has likely made those statistics worse.

According to Wharton Business School professor, Sigal Barsade, being socially connected is a basic human need, “and the lonelier someone is, the worse they will perform. People become less effectively committed to their organization.”

Barsade says that while not everyone feels lonely while working remotely, it’s very much a problem for those who do. “When employees are doing their jobs away from the office, managers must pay attention more than ever. This means regular check-ins and making sure everyone is connected as a team.”

Harter stresses that this also must be the moment when organizations make a true commitment to monitoring and supporting employee well-being. “For any remote working to succeed, we must equip people to do good work and also have good lives.”

Organizations Must Teach Managers How To Effectively Lead Remotely

If anything could derail people from successfully working from home, Harter believes it’s because too many managers lack the skills to effectively manage when employees aren’t near them in an office.

“Right now, organizations have a big hole to fill. They must sustain engagement and effective performance management – and those things are often more difficult in a remote setting. Pre-COVID, there already was wide variability in team effectiveness. And now, we’re about to see those differences get compounded.”

Prior to COVID, younger workers already had been forcing a significant change upon workplace leaders, but the work-from-home experience is proving to be an accelerant. “All of this is creating a new standard of what a manager is supposed to be,” Harter believes.” And this demands that managers move away from the old and tired ‘boss model’ to a ‘coach model.’”

Noting that people tend to receive less feedback when they work remotely, managers must find ways to compensate. “They have to be well equipped to coach people from a distance; and with work and life becoming totally blended, it really demands a different way of leading.”

Throughout our conversation, Harter repeatedly asserted that the happiness and effectiveness of any person working remotely will almost always boil down to how good of a manager they have. And all “good” managers tend to share a distinct list of shared qualities: They are trusting, inspiring, individualizing, and challenging. They listen, develop, mentor – and they deeply care about the success and well-being of their people.

It’s Not An All Or Nothing Thing

Three months of work-from-home experience is insufficient to judge how working from home truly affects people. And with many workers already having had a change of heart, companies are ill-advised to make any permanent or wholesale decisions.

“To really do this right,” Harter told me, “leaders must consider the role of the employee, the engagement and interdependency of the team, how much trust they’ve built, how well they work together – and the employee themselves. Are they emotionally prepared? The big take away is that this is all very nuanced and evolving. CEOs might bristle at the idea of individualizing working from home to each person, but we’re already finding many job families do better in an office setting.”

Conclusion: Give People The Choice On Where They Work – Including A Hybrid

Employee surveys prior to the COVID pandemic showed what American workers wanted most from their employers was the flexibility to work from home. Unexpressed was the desire to work remotely all of the time.

Already, Gallup has discovered that most people really like going into an office, even if occasionally.  And it seems the human spirit is diminished when it loses the innumerable micro-moments of connection and positive emotions gained best in the presence of other people.

“It’s likely that people will want and need a blending of working in an office and remotely,” Harter believes. And giving employees more choice on where they work will lead to the best possible engagement and performance.

By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.