(The Science of) Why Working from Home Sucks

(The Science of) Why Working from Home Sucks

(The Science of) Why Working from Home Sucks

Working from home sounds amazing to those who have never tried it. In reality, it sucks bigtime. Why? There’s plenty of online articles that give reasons, like having nowhere to meet clients. Also, there’s no natural sharing of ideas, contacts and expenses. Finally, home workers miss out on the spirit of camaraderie and energy that an office can bring.

But what does science say? A recent major review of past research on working from home was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest last year. Its main thrust was to compare working in an office with working at home (‘telecommuting’) for the same organisation. However, much of what it has to say is just as relevant to freelances who work for themselves.

Working from home leads to work/life conflict

“Working from home may increase the amount of family responsibility assumed by the [home] worker, thereby increasing opportunities for FIW [family inference at work] to occur. For example, the telecommuter may be expected to be the family member who deals with home-repair workers, daytime appointments, errands, and so on.”

And if home workers’ main form of connectivity with others is by technological devices, this further creates the demand to work more hours and to check e-mail outside of normal working hours.

Working from home decreases job satisfaction

Although job satisfaction initially increases with working from home, it plateaus at around 15.1 hours per week. The explanation for this lies in the social and professional isolation that home workers face when working from home becomes frequent. Such a lack of social interaction offsets any gains in job satisfaction afforded by other benefits associated with working from home.

Working from home is damaging to health

Working from home doesn’t leave more time for exercise and breaks. Instead, home workers spend more time in front of the computer than those who have to commute. They also report more aches and pains, more exhaustion, and a feeling that they were doing a worse job. Home working has also been found to exacerbate feelings of mental and physical fatigue, “workaholism,” even depression.

Working from home lessens job performance

Surveys show that those who work from home judge their own productivity as lesser then when they work with others. They have nothing to judge their work against or no-one from whom to receive feedback. They also demonstrate less persistence when dealing with difficult projects or problems in the course of their work. There is therefore a higher propensity to quit.

Working from home impedes knowledge transfer

“Physical separation may impede such interactions [as exchange of information]. Moreover, knowledge transfer hinges on trust among coworkers, and trust is more likely to occur via face-to-face than over electronic communication…[Home workers miss] the idle conversations in the hallway and other informal conversations that result in learning and knowledge sharing.”

Working from home blocks innovation

Frequency in face-to-face interactions is associated with creativity. Brainstorming and similar idea-generating techniques are less effecting when they are solitary or singular events. They work best when seen as regular, multiple showers, caused by the interaction of people and problems with each other in a natural setting.

Working from home stunts professional development

Those who work from home have limited opportunities to share contacts and to develop mentoring relationships. Coworkers can still join business networks and employ the services of coaches. But these services do not occur naturally, spontaneously, freely, continuously, and with an in-depth understanding of the business involved.

Technology can’t overcome the drawbacks of working from home

Some might argue that a mix of social media technologies and other communication systems could limit or even negate the isolation felt by home workers. But this is not so.

“Although enhancing the social richness of communication systems can increase the effectiveness of planned interactions, they do not remedy the loss of the random “watercooler” conversations that occur among workers who are colocated… Out of a variety of communication methods (e.g., telephone, e-mail, instant messaging, etc), employees reported that face-to-face interaction is most important for maintaining workplace friendships.”

All this explains why organizations such as Google and Apple that create products and platforms that make virtual work easier refrain from encouraging home working, preferring instead to develop workplace cultures in which social interaction is maximized. Hewlett Packard, Yahoo and other giants of tech have joined this trend, despite criticism.

And the basic reason is…

The survey sums up all these reasons with one definitive insight.

“Work itself is a relational act, and interpersonal processes within the workplace shape [worker] attitudes and behaviors. Working at a location removed from regular face-to-face interactions with coworkers…alters the dynamics of work-related interpersonal processes.”

So if work is all about relationship, can working from home be said to be…working at all?

Allen Baird
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