Commentary

Sorry, but working from home is overrated

PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - I'm writing this from the makeshift quarantine bunker in my dining room - sweatpants on, hand sanitizer nearby, snacking my way through my emergency rations. I'm getting plenty of work done, but I'm starting to get unnerved by the lack of stimulation. It's been hours (days?) since I interacted face to face with a human who is not related to me, and cabin fever is setting in.

Among the coronavirus' many effects is a boom in people like me: office workers, shooed away from the office, trying to acclimate to a work-from-home lifestyle.

While the outbreak has already created inconveniences (and much worse) for millions of people in the form of travel restrictions, health scares and stock market turmoil, it has been an exciting time for some fans of remote work. They argue that quarantined workers are getting a glimpse of our glorious, office-free future.

"This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold," wrote Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of Automattic, the software company that owns the WordPress blogging platform.

Mullenweg, whose company's workforce is fully distributed, sees a silver lining in the coronavirus. In his blog post last week, he wrote that it "might also offer an opportunity for many companies to finally build a culture that allows long-overdue work flexibility."

I get where he's coming from. I was a remote worker for two years a while back. For most of that time, I was a work-from-home evangelist who told everyone within earshot about the benefits of avoiding the office. No commute! No distracting co-workers! Home-cooked lunch! What's not to love?

But I've been researching the pros and cons of remote work for my upcoming book about human survival in the age of artificial intelligence and automation. And I've now come to a very different conclusion: Most people should work in an office, or near other people, and avoid solitary work-from-home arrangements whenever possible.

Don't get me wrong: Working from home is a good option for new parents, people with disabilities and others who aren't well served by a traditional office setup. I don't think we should ignore health guidelines and force people to work in an office during a pandemic. And I'm sympathetic to the millions of teachers, restaurant workers and other professionals for whom working from home has never been a viable option.

But for those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home, coronavirus or no, a few words of caution are in order.

Fans of remote work often cite studies showing that people who work from home are more productive, like a 2014 study led by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom. The study examined remote workers at a Chinese travel agency and found that they were 13% more efficient than their office-based peers.

But research also shows that what remote workers gain in productivity, they often miss in harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking. Studies have found that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators, and that team cohesion suffers in remote work arrangements.

 
 
 

Remote workers also tend to take shorter breaks and fewer sick days than office-based ones, and in studies, many report finding it hard to separate their work from their home lives. That's a good thing if you're a boss looking to squeeze extra efficiency out of your employees, but less ideal if you're someone trying to achieve some work-life balance.

Working in isolation can be lonely, which explains the popularity of coworking spaces like WeWork and The Wing. Even in Silicon Valley, where the tools that allow for remote work are being built, many companies are strict about requiring their workers to come into the office.

Steve Jobs, for one, was a famous opponent of remote work, believing that Apple employees' best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of an email inbox.

"Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions," Jobs said. "You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."

I'll grant that office work has its downsides, even in healthy times. Commuting has been shown to make us less happy, and the open-plan office, a truly cursed workplace design trend that emphasizes airy spaces with rows of desks and little privacy, has made distraction-free focus nearly impossible.


If the coronavirus continues preventing people from going to the office, more companies may need to try tactics like these to help keep their workers happy and connected. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

But being near other people also allows us to express our most human qualities, like empathy and collaboration. Those are the skills that can't be automated. And they're what produces the kind of meaningful interpersonal contact we miss out on when we're stuck at home.

"There's an element of social interaction that's really important," said Laszlo Bock, the chief executive of Humu, a Silicon Valley human resources start-up.

Bock, who was previously Google's top human resources officer, said that for most people, balancing office work with remote work is ideal. His company's research has found that the ideal amount of work-from-home time is 1½ days per week - enough to participate in office culture, with some time reserved for deep, focused work.

"The reason tech companies have micro-kitchens and free snacks is not because they think people are going to starve between 9am and noon," he said. "It's because that's where you get those moments of serendipity."

 
 
 

In recent years, some companies with sizable remote workforces have experimented with ways to create office culture over a distance.

Automattic, Mullenweg's all-remote company, holds an annual weeklong staff retreat called the "grand meet-up," at which workers gather in the same place to socialize and work on group projects. At GitLab, an open-source collaboration platform, remote workers are encouraged to schedule "virtual coffee breaks" - purely social video conferences - with colleagues they don't know well.

If the coronavirus continues preventing people from going to the office, more companies may need to try tactics like these to help keep their workers happy and connected.

But some people may never be content with virtual water coolers.

"It's a very personal decision that works for some and doesn't work for others," said Julia Austin, a former tech executive and professor at Harvard Business School. "Some people are more productive and happy and find other ways to get social contact if they work from home. And some people aren't happy working alone."

As a white-collar millennial, I'm supposed to be cheering on the remote work revolution. But I've realized that I can't be my best, most human self in sweatpants, pretending to pay attention on video conferences between trips to the fridge.

I'll stay home as long as my bosses and the health authorities advise. But honestly, I can't wait to go back to work.