1 of the biggest gripes I’ve had lately is people describing working remotely as some sort of impediment to companies being successful. It may not have been something your organization wasn’t doing before and had to adjust to, but for office jobs, working remotely is something that’s been entirely possible for years. In fact, companies like StackOverflow and Basecamp have not only been remote for years, but have written about being successful remote companies extensively, for years (Basecamp even literally wrote a book on making remote work, work). Remote work had slowly been growing in popularity before the pandemic as people started pushing for the flexibility and to drop the requirement to either deal with long commutes or living in expensive cities.
Obviously, my opinion on working from home has changed during the pandemic (Warren and Steven were absolutely right), although in my defense I did try to make clear that it was my personal preference and that even back in 2013 lots of people were being successful working remotely. There were 2 main changes since then (besides Covid), a lot more time working in open office concepts (I had only just started working in 1 when I first wrote that post), and I managed to increase my living space enough to have a dedicated work space, which at least gives me the ability to “leave” work and not think about it again until the next morning instead of rarely being more than 10 feet away from it.
It’s worth noting that what we were doing in the spring of 2020 wasn’t working from home. As I wrote when I tried to offer some Covid-era tips on whatever we want to call what we were doing back then, what we usually think of as working from home generally involves any kids being somewhere else, and more often than not spouses aren’t home either. Instead, what we had was an attempt to avoid a full-on work stoppage and resulting furloughs. The truth is, the challenge wasn’t the fact that we weren’t in the office, it was that a lot of people were trying to actively work and actively take care of their families (getting their kids online for school, helping with homework, changing diapers, feeding kids, etc.) simultaneously. And yet, we adapated, because that’s what people do. We adjusted our routines, and for a lot of us, still managed to find a way to get things done without losing our minds. Once there was a bigger insistence on things like opening schools and day cares, things got a little closer to what you would expect from the phrase “working remotely.” So why can’t people get it out of their heads that offices are less important than ever?
As best I can tell from observation, a big part of this is habit, we go to work to do work because we’ve always gone to work to do work. The ability to completely do a job from home is fairly recent, and even then it was usually reserved for when there wasn’t another option (e.g. you had to be home because of a sick kid or someone was coming to fix something at your house between 7 AM and 8 PM). To be honest, this is probably the most respectable “reason” out there for going back to the office – habits and routines are comforting and extremely hard to change, and given the last 18 months or so since the whole Covid thing started, it’s tempting to jump at anything that we used to do before lockdowns.
I’ve gotten better about disciplining myself about not getting too distracted on other things that I know need to be done around the home since I’m there during the day, but some people probably still feel that it’s easier or better to just remove themselves from the situation entirely. Some people may still have kids at home (their spouse may be a stay-at-home parent or homeschool), and they may want to get back to the office just for a little less chaos during the day (I empathize).
When it comes to actually giving reasons for why working remotely is such a barrier, the main reason I’ve usually heard is that being in the same office improves collaboration. Specifically, they generally have that 1 story of 1 time someone happened to hear a snippet of a conversation and offered some useful insight. Seriously, it’s 1 story. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a second. The truth is in open offices, people work to try to avoid being in those stories (that article also did not speak well of communication for fully remote teams, a finding corroborated by recent research from Microsoft).
As far as collaboration goes, the only type of collaboration that I could get in an office but not working remotely is the ability to walk over to someone’s desk and stand there until I get an answer to whatever my question or issue was at the time. That type of collaboration is really handy for me, but generally annoying for whoever I’d do it to, so I’m not sure that’s something people should be pushing to preserve.
Another reason for clinging to the idea that productivity outside of the office is an anomaly is the fact that companies have spent a lot of money on office real estate, and they’re likely loathe to write that money off to close the office (although it’s been done before). For that kind of sunk cost, people are going to demand that whatever they paid for gets used, and rationalize the benefits later. And so, for them the office becomes the only place where you can expect people to get work done.
People being productive working remotely certainly isn’t new, and companies that have made it work have been sharing their tips publicly for years. The popularity of remote work is only new because working remotely full-time wasn’t really something most people did before Covid. In the relatively few instances where people did, it was popular then too. The idea that people are productive “in spite of” being at the office largely stems from a disbelief that working was something that could be done from anywhere else.
Obviously, all of this applies to people with office jobs. Teams working on physical equipment, particularly the same piece of physical equipment (e.g. robotics engineering teams) would likely need a place where their common device can be found. We never did really try to figure out how to do remote education. And, of course, there’s retail work and in-person service work (like appliance repair). Not every job is a good fit for remote work. But it is incredibly frustrating to hear people discussing large numbers of their employees with positions conducive to working from anywhere act as if being productive from anywhere is somehow a shock to them. Give how much easier it is to have your day unavoidably interrupted at the office (by people walking over to your desk to get you to answer something now), or the distractions from random conversations unrelated to anything you’re trying to get done going on in the background, I’d actually say people are surprisingly productive “in spite of” being at the office.