To work from home or not to work from home?

The Economist says not to work from home because “it is not more productive than being in an office, after all”.

A gradual reverse migration is under way, from Zoom to the conference room. Wall Street firms have been among the most forceful in summoning workers to their offices, but in recent months even many tech titans—Apple, Google, Meta and more—have demanded staff show up to the office at least three days a week. For work-from-home believers, it looks like the revenge of corporate curmudgeons.

They cite the case of the paper that went from showing an eight percent increase in productivity due to working from home when it was a working paper, to showing that there was a four percent reduction instead. There was no problem with the paper or its methodology, to be clear. The difference was simply because of better quality of data. There is a world of other research worth going through in The Economist article, and I would urge you to read it.

What reasons come through for the decline in productivity? Well, it’s just hard to work from a dining table! The ability to go to a co-worker’s desk to chat about work, to get some help, to resolve an issue – that is harder to do online. Why is it harder? Because “teleconferencing is a pale imitation of in-the-flesh meetings”. That’s a fancy way of saying online sucks. To use Coasean terminology, as the article in The Economist does, coordination costs matter.

Most important of all, networking becomes harder. We are, at heart, a social species, and we need proximity to other people. Not only for the psychological benefits, but also because we learn best in person. That might seem like a contradiction given yesterday’s post, but it is not. Learning in person doesn’t necessarily mean listening to someone like me drone on in a classroom!

But to me, the article came alive towards the end. As with all well written articles, this one too segues into an implicit “on-the-other-hand” section.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of remote work is that it leads to happier employees. People spend less time commuting, which from their vantage-point might feel like an increase in productivity, even if conventional measures fail to detect it. They can more easily fit in school pickups and doctor appointments, not to mention the occasional lie-in or midmorning jog. And some tasks—notably, those requiring unbroken concentration for long periods—can often be done more smoothly from home than in open-plan offices. All this explains why so many workers have become so office-shy.

“What are you optimizing for?” remains an underrated question! If you’ll allow me to cite an example from my own life: I’ve been working from home for the last year and a half, approximately. I stay on Baner Road in Pune, and not having to battle University signal everyday is something that saves me time, gives me more energy and enthusiasm to work, and frees up time to do other stuff (work/exercise/napping/whatever). I have the pleasure of picking up my daughter from her bus-stop every day. I get to go for morning and evening walks with my dog. Sure I miss the conversations with some of my colleagues, and god knows I miss being able to interact with my students on campus. But hey, opportunity costs are everywhere, no?

As the article goes on to say in its concluding paragraph, hybrid weeks are here to stay. Sure it is not as productive as working in an office, but woking from home is more soul satisfying. And so the answer to the question “work from home or not” is, well, both.

The truth, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, lies somewhere in the middle.

One thought on “To work from home or not to work from home?

  1. 🙂 As someone who commuted for work for 12 years in Bombay, I am more than happy to advocate for working from home. Apart from the time wasted in travelling, there are other dynamics at play like if your team sits all across the world, it doesn’t make sense to go into some office just to chat up colleagues. 3 days a week is too excessive – I say go ahead and make it 3 days a month (of the employee’s choice).

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