Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies are experiencing the benefits and pains of remote work for the first time. While some have embraced this change others have struggled.
Much inked has been spilled pinning the loss of innovation that comes from the now missing in-person contact of the office.
It seems like, while everyone agrees that there are many benefits to remote work for the employees -better food, less time commuting, more flexibility with child care - most employers feel like, to use Reed Hasting’s, the CEO of Netflix, phrase, it’s “a pure negative” for the company.
This sounds like nothing more than status quo bias to me. There are, in fact, tremendous benefits to remote work for employers. So let’s flip the script and assume that we’ve all been working remotely since time-immemorial and we suddenly have to switch to office work.
Here are 10 downsides of office work for employers that we’d all complain about.
Yes. This is probably the most cited benefit to employees for remote work. But it’s also worth considering just how bad commuting is for employers. The average American commutes 54 minutes a day, draining their energy before they even start work. That loss of time and energy cannot be good for employers. Imagine getting an extra hour a day of high energy output from your employees. How much would you pay for that?
2. Limited talent pool
Back when I was convinced of the importance of having everybody work in the same office every day, we had the opportunity to hire one of the best coders I have ever met. However, he needed to move to Boston for his wife’s job. So we turned him down and ended up hiring a replacement level coder, someone who was probably 1/10th as effective as the best.
The math makes it obvious that we made a mistake. If the difference between a mediocre coder and a great coder is 10X, then the mediocre code must at least 10X more effective in person. I find that incredibly difficult to believe.
Simply stated, there just aren’t that many people capable of fulfilling high-skilled positions. By insisting on in person-work, you’re limiting your talent pool to the people who live in your city
3. Expensive offices
For all the talk about how beneficial it is to work in person, few reference just how expensive it is. The numbers are astounding.
A friend owns a small business. He has five employees. His office cost him \$100k a year (with a five-year lease). That office costs him at least one whole employee that could make sales, increase marketing, whatever.
So is the in-person office really worth the cost of a 20% increase in your workforce?
4. Water cooler talk
Water cooler talk is often referenced as a benefit of office work. But from the company’s perspective, I have trouble seeing it. If anything, water cooler talk is good for the employees because it helps them distract them from whatever mundane task they’re supposed to be doing.
5. Bullshit meetings
We all know the joke “this meeting could have been an email”. With remote work, many of those meetings do, in fact, turn into emails. That saves your employees time, but, even more importantly, turn a synchronous meeting into an asynchronous message. That allows your employees to batch their work and get the most important work done first.
6. Limited focused time
All the supposed benefits of office work revolve around in-person communication - meetings, chit chat at the water cooler, discussions over lunch, etc. As discussed, I think those are nebulous at best.
But one thing they definitely do is break up the day into little chunks, making it impossible to do deep work on tasks that take hours of focus (like coding, writing, creating spreadsheets, etc).
7. Rigid schedules
While flexibility is frequently touted as a benefit for employees. It’s also a massive benefit for employers. Consider the following example.
You have an employee who can’t sleep from 1 to 4 a.m. because of a stomach ache. Because we’re all working from the office now, they’ll come-in, struggle through the day from 9 to 5, checking their email, and probably not doing anything particularly beneficial to the company.
Now in the good-old-days of remote work, they would (dare I say), take a nap, and at least be effective in the afternoon.
What’s better, an employee working at 10% for 8 hours? Or an employee working at 80% for 7 hours?
8. Tribal knowledge
Many companies struggle with what they call “tribal knowledge” unwritten procedures and processes that the company relies on to get things done that really should be formalized into a written procedure.
The simple fact is, remote-work forces you to be more rigid to create more well-defined procedures because they will be executed asynchronously when you can’t rely on ad hoc, informal discussions.
9. Inappropriate behavior
Lewd comments or worse take place much more regularly in person than they do in remote work.
10. Less writing
Writing is still the most powerful organizational tool we have. When we communicate in person, discussion points can be muddled, and there’s no record of the conversation. But when we communicate via email or slack or memos were forced to clarify our thinking, and there’s a record that can be easily referenced later.
The evidence from the massive experiment we’re actually living through suggests that office work is overrated.
During the pandemic, we’re experiencing the worst version of remote work possible. We’re trapped in our houses, unable to meet in person ever, often caring for children while trying to keep up with work.
And yet the companies that have transitioned to remote work haven’t seen a dramatic loss in productivity. That suggests we ought to seriously consider whether or not office work is worth the cost.