Fine out how to work from anywhere
Working from home

Can you really work from anywhere - Does it make sense?

Post-Covid, there’s been huge debate and much controversy around the issues of working from home and in particular, returning to work in the office.  Is there an ingredient (or perhaps five!) that we’ve not considered yet?

Google's former Chief Financial Officer, Patrick Pichette, ruffled a few feather when he told the Sydney Morning Herald that he believed working from home is not the best way to generate ideas and innovation.

Pichette was visiting Google's Australian office and a local start up business community, when he made some unexpected comments on the topic of working from home (WFH).

"The surprising question we get is: 'How many people telecommute at Google?" Pichette said. "And our answer is: 'As few as possible'."

"It's somewhat counterintuitive. People think, 'Well, because you're at Google you can work from anywhere.' Yes, you can work from anywhere, but many just commute to offices . . . Working from the office is really important."

Pichette makes an important point that is often overlooked in the debate on how productive WFH (or telecommuting) can be – the need for social interaction in certain jobs, and I would add organisation cultures - and with certain personality types.

Pichette said he believed that working from home could, "Isolate employees from other staff."

"There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer, 'What do you think of this?' These are magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of your company, of your own personal development and building much stronger communities."

Yet seemingly contrary to Pichette's views, the percentage of people who WFH is growing. In the US, for example, it was estimated to be around 10% of the workforce in 2020. And as of 2023, Forbes report that number has grown to 12.7% of full-time employees, while 28.2% work a hybrid model – this latter figure may be very telling.

So, is WFH a good thing – either for the employer or employee (or both)? How do organisations decide whether to provide WFH arrangements for their people? And if you're an employee who has the opportunity to participate in WFH, is it right for you, or perhaps a hybrid model better suits?

There's been a raft of research on this topic from as far back as the mid 1970s. The general result of such studies is that WFH can be very productive for both the employer and the employee. But there are caveats.

In terms of productivity, a study (Bloom et al Jan 2013) of a Chinese company running a travel call centre showed that when two groups of employees were compared over a nine month period, (one traditional office bound and the other WFH), the WFH group were far more productive. In fact, they were 13% more productive. However, the authors point out that, "the job of a call center employee is particularly suitable for telecommuting. It requires neither teamwork nor in-person face time. Quantity and quality of performance can be easily quantified and evaluated. The link between effort and performance is direct. These conditions apply to a range of service jobs such as sales, IT support, and secretarial assistance".

In the Chinese example, the results of the experiment were so successful (for the company), they decided to offer all their call centre employees the option of WFH or working in the office on a permanent basis (they'd all originally also been given the opportunity to volunteer for the WFH experiment).

Yet surprisingly (perhaps for the company) given the chance to WFH, two thirds of the control group decided to stay in the office, citing concerns over the loneliness of home working and lower rates of promotion. This may have been an indication of the extent of the employees learning about their own suitability for working from home.

In reverse, half of the WFH group changed their minds and returned to the office – typically those who had performed relatively poorly at home.

The type of work undertaken by the employees in this study was telephone and internet based and looked at productivity gains and employee choices between WFH and office.  Reports of the reasons for choice such as loneliness and lower rates of promotion, were given.

However, despite the fact that this type of work was seen as ideally suited to WFH, there was little analysis of the difference between the two working conditions (WFH/office) in terms of one’s five senses – sight, sound (both used extensively in WFH and office), and smell, touch, taste (seemingly only available in the office). For instance, using all five senses with hybrid-working could in fact improve both productivity and employee's well-being.

Could the lack of an employee’s ability to share a meal with co-workers (for example, as Google’s Pichette earlier indicated), be a factor? Or, how about the inability to touch another person? Numerous studies have shown that touch can strongly transmit a sense of being accepted and cared for — the emotional benefits.  It also confers physiological benefits – such as calming our nervous centre and slowing down our heartbeat. Touch lowers blood pressure as well as cortisol, our stress hormone. Importantly, it also triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone known for promoting emotional bonding with others.

Were the call centre employees who preferred WFH living in a social environment that provided them the use of all five senses without the need to go to the office – was this a factor in their choice?

In line with the Chinese experiment, my own observations about the growth in WFH arrangements, is that over recent years the emphasis has been on providing flexible working conditions to encourage a more motivated and stable workforce – and rightly so. It’s only been more recently that I’ve also been considering the use of one’s senses as an important criterion.

If we now consider this extra factor – the use of our senses - perhaps there may be more behind Mr Pichette's remarks than even he realises. Using all five senses with hybrid-working for example, are important considerations for senior managers and HR managers when making decisions about offering WFH options. And for employees, it would be useful to look at the type of work on offer, one's own personality and work preferences as well as the opportunity to involve all five senses, before deciding to WFH, no matter how appealing it may seem.


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