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Work From Home Forever? Never!

Before adopting the latest potential corporate benefit of working from home permanently, consider the opposing viewpoint and potential downside impact. The following perspective is given by one of our Fahrenheit consultants as he looks ahead to returning to the office following the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a Gallup poll from April 2020, 62% of employed Americans were working from home due to the pandemic. That number, using data from mid-March, most likely skyrocketed in subsequent months. In turn, it has triggered a growing national discussion around the idea that employees who can reasonably do their jobs from home, indeed, be allowed to do so. And from there, it takes little imagination to visualize the end of the American corporate office as we know it.

In some cases, we don’t even have to imagine. SHOPIFY, SQUARE, and TWITTER have already adopted ‘Work from Home Forever’ as company policy. FACEBOOK has followed suit. And where one enviable, to-die-for employee benefit goes, others are soon to follow. It would be extremely difficult for a given company’s recruiting efforts to bear fruit were they not to offer similar benefits. At the risk of creating a great rift with my beloved and cherished co-workers, let me offer up an alternative view: ‘working from home forever’ is a bad idea. Bad for clients, bad for your career, bad for your co-workers and bad for your company. While I’m sure some may dismiss my contrarianism as part of a long and storied past as a world-class curmudgeon, that (accurate) accusation alone cannot diminish my thoughtful three reasons. To wit:

1) Non-verbal cues represent 93% of human communication

That’s not a typo, folks. It was found from research conducted at UCLA by Dr. Albert Mehrabian that the overwhelming majority of your communication does not involve spoken words. This has been a widely referenced statistic in communications since his work in the 1960s. Meaning comes from gestures, head nods, tone, eye contact, posture, physical space (think: leaning in or pulling away), touch, body movements, facial expressions, and on and on. ZOOM calls fail to capture most of it. Phone calls even less. That is not to say that Google hangouts and group dial-ins are not suitable and effective because I use them all the time. But they could never replace face-to-face interaction. Visiting my clients and working in their offices builds familiarity, camaraderie and trust. I’m dubious that the same degree of teamwork can exist and organically grow by remote contact only.

2) WFH has risks for your career

I know of two large Richmond, Virginia employers who use a system of annual “team reviews” to assess, incentivize, re-assign and demote their workforce. The bias contained within those systems is as obvious as it is intuitive. All things equal, the remote folks never fared very well. When discreetly probed for a reason, the explanation given by most was some variation on the same theme. Namely, it’s easier to make an unflattering observation about someone whom you will never meet than face a co-worker with whom you work day in and day out. That has really stuck with me. I’m not even sure it’s unfair. It might just be very human.

3) The distractions!

One thing I will remember about this pandemic is the daily visits from the Amazon truck or grocery delivery. Like just about everyone else, quarantine has meant purchasing a lot of my household items online. Every time I hear a truck pull up, I stop what I’m doing. I can’t help it. Further, as a single dad, I find it very difficult to escape all distractions and focus on my work when I’m in my home office with my boys nearby. It seemingly involves constant interruptions. Mostly by my youngest child who wants my attention and is pleasantly surprised by my new-found availability to him. I don’t blame either of them for the distractions and it’s tough to say ‘no’ since it’s their home too.

Finally, while working remotely may have many champions, it’s a bulletin from the department of the obvious that remote learning was (for most parents) an abject failure. I know from personal experience that the current faculty of my boys’ remote schooling (myself) needs immediate termination. He is terrible at geometry, frequently grumpy, and occasionally drank on the job. They deserve better. Even though I’ve enjoyed every single extra minute with them that this pandemic has afforded me, make no mistake. When the time comes, I will make my escape quietly and run enthusiastically back to the office.

About the Author

As a CPA, controller, and long-time consultant with over 20 years of experience, Russ Gambrel helps clients navigate the complexities of compliance and financial reporting, improve accounting processes, and gain a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges within their business. His experience in accounting, auditing, banking, information technology systems, and project management has positioned him as a senior level consultant and interim CFO and controller