Work is a verb, not a noun

For more and more roles in workplace, work is something you do, not somewhere you are.

I’ve been a big fan of work location (and time) flexibility. I’ve always found that different places inspire different kinds of work. And while a good work environment at the office is important to me, as are good colleagues, I do find that my best work isn’t necessarily done at work.

With the recent months of COVID-19 shutdowns in many countries, one of the easy things to implement for many countries was a request or demand that those workers who can, should work at home. Easy, because it doesn’t have the economic ramifications of sending home workers who are unable to do their work it they’re not present at their place of work, such as production line workers or construction workers.

However, many companies and managers seem be against the idea of setting the work force free. Google, for instance, is against it. But they’re also very big on putting people in cramped, noisy offices, in spite of the data from tons of research saying it’s counterproductive (more on that later).

Generally speaking, when I’ve worked with companies or spoken at events on remote work, I see the same arguments against it repeated in some form. I’ll go through them one by one, along with my counterarguments.

People work better in an office
This is the most common one. The claim simply is that the office is a space designed and perfected over decades to be ideal for work, so people work better there.

This is partially correct. Unless you have an actual home office or some other dedicated work space, you’ll probably have better ergonomics at your desk than at home. Things like lighting and ventilation is also better geared than what you find in many homes. Provided that we’re talking about a good, well-designed office. Cramped workspaces with too many people in one place is generally not great for productivity. And offices also come with their own set of drawbacks. Interruptions, time wasted on commuting, and numerous other factors are probably why a 2018 Microsoft study showed that there is a 40 % loss of productivity in a typical office setting due to interruptions and multitasking. And increased noise levels have been shown to cause stress in workers in open space offices.

Creativity requires human interaction
This is often used in the creative and digital industries, championed by Google. According to the believers, if you put smart people together in a room, they will magically inspire each other, like creative electrons being attracted by each others’ charges.

My counterargument
Creativity is, of course, more complex than that. Yes, other people can be a tremendous source of inspiration, and bouncing ideas off of one another can really trigger great ideas (or kill bad ones, which is almost more important). But there’s so much more to it. Working among other people, normal people who are not in your industry (potentially customers or users, though not necessarily) can trigger a huge surge of creativity. And just being out of the office, whether it’s at home or in a coffee shop has long been known as being a trigger of inspiration. And sometimes you just need uninterrupted time to do deep work. I’ve done some of my best work in trains or airplanes, or even hotel rooms, because I could focus in a way I can’t at the office. In the same Microsoft study cited above, on 14 percent of respondents stated that they “got their best work-related idea” in a workplace location (8 % “in a meeting”, 6 % “at my desk”).
And the idea that open space offices foster creativity has been shot down numerous times. A Harvard study showed that people in open plan offices are less collaborative, have less face-to-face time, and rely more on e-mail than in the alternatives, to the tune of 70 %.
Basically, if you’re so into creativity that you want to order people to be at the office at all times, there are so many other things that have been proven to be effective that you should try first (and being in an office never scores very high on lists of inspiration triggers anyway). If you want to really naughty, check out some of the non-work activities you should allow to trigger creativity, like going for walks or napping! I may do a blog post on some of these in the future.

People get distracted
Get people out of the ideal work environment that is the modern office, and they’ll get distracted and not be able to concentrate.

My counterargument: The modern office space is not, according to numerous studies, an ideal work place, and distractions and deep focus-killers abound. Of course, if you have three kids, two dogs, and you mother-in-law at home, and major construction work going on, you may be better off going to the office to work. But for many people, working from home is the distraction-free option.

We can’t work remotely
The final argument against remote work is that it simply isn’t possible to do work if you’re not at the same location.

My counterargument: COVID-19 has largely proved that you can actually work remotely. It’s 2020, we have the technology. But even before the current shelter-in-place orders, proof abounded. I mean, if you can’t work with people without being in the same location as them, how the heck do multinational companies keep things running? And yet, they have, for decades.

So that takes care of the main arguments against remote work. Dig a little deeper, though, and you often find that the real problem some people have is that they simply don’t believe that people work when they’re home. To which my question is always the same: if you don’t think they work when they’re not in the office, what makes you think they work when they are at the office? After all, us office workers aren’t construction workers, it can be hard to tell if we’re working or goofing off (“that man’s playing Galaga!”).

Add all this up and compare to the fact that numerous studies have shown that working remotely increases productivity, lowers stress levels, reduces sick days, and brings down attrition rates (seriously, just Google it. Here’s one to start with).

If you truly believe that your people won’t do work when you’re not watching them, you either have trust issue or the wrong people on your staff.

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