The History of Working From Home

The History of Working From Home

Three months since the coronavirus sent millions of Americans out of their offices to work from home, businesses are realizing that working from home is possible. Telecommuting does not have the best track record, but things are changing.

The coronavirus hit the U.S. in January, and by mid-March, office buildings went vacant, people got used to their work from home chairs and skyscrapers in cities like New York City turned off their lights. Now, three months after corporate America was sent to work from home, employers and managers are realizing that working from home is, at the very least, working.

One New York Times article shares advice from Richard Laermer, though, who reminds readers that managing a work-from-home workforce should still be taken seriously. His biggest piece of advice? Do not be an idiot.

Working from home is a great option for some, and not for others. For some people, working from home has allowed them to be more productive, to see their families or to manage their mental health. However, others admit they have been less productive.

Laermer said a few years ago, he let his employees work from home on Fridays. This did not work out well, though, as he found that he could not find people when he needed them.

“Every weekend became a three-day holiday,” he said. “I found that people work so much better when they’re all in the same physical space.”

Other groups have found that telecommuting is more harmful to a workforce and business. However, large companies like Facebook, Shopify, Zillow, Twitter and more are developing plans to let employees work remotely forever. Many are curious to see how these decisions will play out, as some businesses’ past experiences with a work-from-home workforce have proven not so positive.

“Working from home is a strategic move, not just a tactical one that saves money,” said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. “A lot of it comes down to trust. Do you trust your people?”

While the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented in a number of ways—including the large number of American now working from home, the idea of telecommuting is not a new one. As the article explains, companies large and small have been trying for decades to make working from home work. Some companies are even founded on a work-from-home model when employees are hired.

The idea of telecommuting does have its benefits: reduced commutes for employees, less resources and energy used for an office space, a better work-life balance (for some), less money spent on high-priced real estate and the ability to hire employees who worked far from the office.

However, telecommuting has proven to have its cons as well. These include issues like employees feeling marginalized, less interaction and bonding between workers and decreasing amounts of creativity and innovation for some.

Business opinions on telecommuting have drastically changed over the last few months, though. Back in 2018, a Facebook higher-up said that Facebook let “as few employees as possible” work from home. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, Facebook expects up to half of its workers will be remote as soon as 2025. Best Buy had a similar shift in philosophy over the last few months. Even Walmart’s tech chief told his workers that “working virtually will be the new normal.”

Jody Thompson, a previous employee at Best Buy, said, “Flexible work gives employees more freedom with their schedules but does not fundamentally change how they are managed.”

This is not easy for managers, though, since many have the temptation to manage someone harder if you cannot see them. There is an increase in managers looking at spyware.

Still, employees’ responses to these shifts are split. In some companies’ surveys on if workers preferred remote work or not, about half of employees pressed remote work while half did not—and wanted to return to the office.

The pandemic has meant a mixed bag regarding telecommuting. Some businesses are seeing no decrease in productivity, while others are. Managers are having to find the balance between managing the people and managing the work. Technology like Zoom has really helped some businesses facilitate collaboration and accountability. There are now more rules for businesses, like that you have to be available from 9am until 5:30pm.

While Laermer has gained a little more confidence in telecommuting during the pandemic, he is not convinced it is a long-term possibility. “Companies are saying working from home is working so well we’re going to let people work from home forever,” he said. “It’s good P.R., and very romantic, and very unrealistic. We’ll be back in the office as soon as there’s a vaccine.”

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