Is Working Remotely a Perk or a Curse?

Author: David McMillin       

When more than 50,000 design professionals converged at The Mart in Chicago for NeoCon June 10–13, they had opportunities to explore the new furniture, flooring styles, and technologies that will reshape the next generation of offices. The nearly 1.4 million square feet of exhibition space was the primary attraction, but some big questions loomed over all those products: Will people even go to an office in the future? As foldable smartphones and 5G connectivity reach every corner of the world, why can’t everyone just work from wherever they choose?

Gabor Nagy, Ph.D., research program manager at Haworth, has been studying those questions for more than a decade. Since 2008, Haworth has been conducting a biennial survey of how organizations approach the idea of an alternative workplace, which relates to a company’s policies surrounding whether employees need to report to the office. For those who fall into the category of “burned-out employee,” skipping a frustrating commute and working from an environment other than a prison-like cubicle may sound like a good solution. Many organizations see a similar value, too. In fact, 61 percent of the 130 organizations surveyed indicated that contributing to a positive work-life balance was a top benefit of offering an alternative workplace option for their employees. The catch? That balance seems to shift toward work.

“The biggest problem is that employees actually work more hours each day in lieu of reduced or eliminated commuting time,” Nagy said in the seminar, “Is Mobile Work Here to Stay?” “It’s [perceived as] the No. 1 benefit, so it’s ironic that it leads to more time connected to work.”

The increase in hours might be one of the reasons that few employees bother taking advantage of the chance to avoid the office. While 85 percent of the organizations in the survey offer the option to work from home to their employees, only six percent of employees actually take advantage of it. Instead, at some companies such as Facebook, Google, and Apple, employees are what Nagy calls “internal mobile.” They have no assigned seats, and they regularly set up shop wherever they please. Nagy said that the culture is still “all about coming together.” However, that collaboration can take place anywhere on the company’s campus.

Nagy pointed out that flexibility isn’t all about location, though. “It’s not just the where part,” Nagy said, “but also the how and when employees work.”

If you’re leading a team, it’s important to recognize that accommodating those additional factors plays a role in keeping employees engaged. In fact, a 2018 Clutch survey of more than 500 employees across a range of industries revealed that the ability to shape one’s work schedule is the most influential perk for employees. At NeoCon, Nagy pointed out that more bosses are paying attention. “Employers are increasingly thinking that it doesn’t matter when you come to work as long as you do your job,” Nagy said. “You can come to work or leave anytime as long as you deliver.”

Have you changed your approach to how and where you work — and how and where your team members work? Go to Catalyst to share your perspectives on what your office will look like in the future.

David McMillin is an associate editor at Convene.