Wednesday, September 14, 2022

What Happened to Working from Home?

As a freelancer, it's been interesting to watch the work-from-home tug-of-war over the last few years.  For years there had been a prevailing reluctance to allow employees to work from home, even though I'd seen some of that resistance breaking down more recently, usually in "millennial" type companies that prided themselves on their work atmosphere and perks.  One of those "perks" was often the flexibility to work from home some days, usually on snow days and sick days, but sometimes "just because," a sort of early hybrid schedule.  I had a couple of friends who worked 100 percent from home, but those friends were outliers, exceptions to the rule.  The reigning belief was that it couldn't be done, even though those friends' companies and freelancers like myself proved otherwise.

Then covid hit, and basically the entire business world went to work from home.  There became a new definition of what could be done, because it basically had to be done, unless it genuinely couldn't be done.

I remember a lot of discussions with office workers at the time.  We all felt like covid had tipped the scales, and now that businesses saw that it could be done, and actually done quite well, that more businesses would go to work-from-home models.  After all, why pay for huge offices and all those expensive office perks if they aren't needed?

Over the last two or so years, I've watched my friends, family, and acquaintances slowly creep back to work.  At first, it was just a few lonely businesses who seemed, rather unfairly, to be forcing their employees back to work.  Gradually more companies followed suit, but there were still quite a few holdouts.  And then all at once, it seems, the majority of the business world has suddenly returned to our old normal, without any regard for the lessons learned when practically the whole world worked from home out of necessity.

I've seen companies get almost mean about it, when their employees didn't want to go back to the office.  They asked, they prodded, and when their employees were basically like, "No, we're good," they put their foot down and forced the issue.

I started to wonder, was the work-from-home experiment not as resoundingly successful as I thought?  But then I saw this article in the times, So You Wanted to Get Work Done at the Office?  And it turns out I'm not the only one who is bemused at the push to return to the office.  People really do get more done at home, away from the distractions of a busy office and all of its "perks," and there is research to back it up.  For example, take this study showing that call center employees who worked from home took fewer breaks, called in sick less, and got more done.  Likewise, this study demonstrated that even a hybrid model (two days working from home out of a five-day workweek) led to an increase in both productivity and job satisfaction, and a decrease in turnover.

In other words, employees who work from home are happier, more motivated, and more productive.  Why on earth wouldn't employers want this?

I believe it comes down to a business philosophy called Taylorism that became popular over 100 years ago, and is the basis for many of our current work atmospheres and attitudes.  It's partly the idea of paring jobs down into assembly-line tasks to save time by creating employees who are each experts in a small part of the big picture, but Taylorism is also all wrapped up in the notion of watching employees who are assumed to be innately lazy and untrustworthy if they don't have their manager driving them at all times.

Of course the modern workplace has softened a lot from the way Taylorism was enforced 100 years ago, but it's still much the same concept.  Now offices have water coolers and coffee machines, snack walls and community rooms, but there is still - apparently - that expectation that if management doesn't keep a physical eye on employees, they won't work... even though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary (not the least of which is that nearly the entire business world worked from home for months, if not longer, and the world kept on turning).

This turned into a longer post than I was anticipating, so tomorrow I'll talk about where freelancers come in.

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