What You Actually Miss Out On When You Work From Home

Photographed by Leia Morrison
In 2016 my flatmate asked me to wiggle the trackpad on her laptop every five minutes while she nipped to the Tesco across the road. Otherwise, she said, her manager would see that her Outlook icon was idle and would suspect her of skiving because she was working from home
Before 16th March 2020, this was a common suspicion about any employee who wasn’t in the office. Working remotely was what we did when we were ill enough to be a nuisance to our colleagues or too sick to travel but well enough to lie in bed, laptop on our thighs, answering emails and croaking down the phone. It was viewed as either a threat to the status quo or a concession offered out of goodwill but was also something your boss managed to gift themselves once a week without ever offering an explanation. 
When Boris Johnson asked people to work from home "if you can" to stop the spread of coronavirus, all that changed. And in the year and a half that has followed, norms and expectations around office-based jobs have transformed. Jobs website Reed revealed last week that the number of working from home job adverts had risen from 1% to 5% since the start of the pandemic. 
But earlier this month, Chancellor Rishi Sunak warned that young people, in particular, stood to lose out if they did not work in the office and form "strong relationships" with contacts and colleagues. Since 'freedom day' on 19th July, the government has recommended a gradual return to the office for those who have been working remotely. 
Young people’s career advancement is likely not the only reason for this push to welcome back staff. "There's pressure to get people back to the workplace and I think some of the drivers for that are not just about work and productivity," says Dr Will Ponsonby, former president of the Society of Occupational Medicine. "It's also about supporting the economy, and supporting the economy in cities."
The chancellor may have an economic agenda and, given that he is a privately educated man who likely entered the world of work with a ready-made network, it’s fair to say that his comments have fallen flat. 
In truth, there are some upsides to being in an office. So whether we want to go back to the office or not, we should consider what we might be missing out on at home. Dr Ponsonby says there are psychological benefits from workplaces that are lost when we stay at home, explaining that the social interaction you can expect from your job while working remotely is "very limited", which can affect some workers’ mental health. 

Your boss is unlikely to reveal on a Zoom meeting that they're hungover. Similarly, you won't find out via Slack that two of your coworkers were once involved in an affair.

When all our communication is planned and deliberate (sending an email, your boss phoning you to explain a new project), we miss out on "high bandwidth, non instrumental conversations" (aka general chit-chat), says Bernie Hogan, senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Internet Institute
"When you have these high bandwidth conversations that aren’t driven towards a goal, you end up learning a lot about another person," he explains, adding that some teams have tried to replicate environments that encourage these chats remotely. "Like just leaving the camera on and chatting when you feel like it, or other ways of simulating the virtual water cooler. But they don't work very well because a lot of people – for a lot of reasons – find online video conferencing to be tiring, and it makes people self-conscious."
Low-key conversations are good not just for making friends (something many graduates and young people are keen to do after being cast adrift from school or university) but also for placing you at the forefront of someone’s mind when they have an opportunity to dole out. Hogan points to "The Strength of Weak Ties", an often-cited 1973 essay by sociologist Mark S. Granovetter, which posits that it is the people we are more loosely connected to – rather than our close friends or family – who make the most valuable career contacts. After-work drinks, chatting in the office kitchen and in-person team meetings all help foster these ties. Or at least they did before the pandemic. 
"They're the casual contacts that will come up when we activate our job search. We’ll say, 'Hey, do you know if there's anything around?'" Hogan explains. "It seems like the weak ties are getting a lot weaker now, even if they're getting more numerous through the internet. So that means they're probably not going to be as useful for these things." 
In simple terms, people are more liable to do favours "for people that they care about," Hogan continues. "You care about people when you have more of a fully rounded picture of who they are. And you care about them less when they're an input/output device for the next to-do list task."
As well as losing networking opportunities, starting a new job from our bedrooms can rob us of the chance to grasp the structure of a team – and the subtle interpersonal dynamics between our colleagues. Your boss is unlikely to betray the fact that they’re not fond of a particular team member in a formal email, or to reveal on a Zoom meeting that they're hungover. Similarly, you won’t find out via Slack that two of your coworkers were once involved in an affair. And getting hold of the right person is also far harder when you can’t simply walk up to their desk.
"It adds a vast overhead when you have to ping an email to someone, wait half a day, and then that brings you to the next person, and then you wait another half a day," Hogan says. "When you don't know the organisation, it does not reveal itself as effectively through everyone working at home, it becomes much more of an abstraction that people have to navigate."
But for those who already have the right knowledge and connections in a job, working remotely can be an entirely different experience. "If you know the rules, I'm sure that working at home is a relief," Hogan tells me. "You don't have to work with people that you find are surly, and you know exactly who to contact for the right thing." 
Last June a survey by the Occupational Psychology Centre (OPC) found that almost half of employees were feeling "alienated" by WFH and were missing face-to-face contact with colleagues. Additionally, 45% felt that remote working reduced mentoring and training opportunities. 

There's a lot to be said for a vibrant, engaging workplace. On the other hand, we've all worked in terrible workplaces as well, which just drain you. 

Dr Stephen Fletcher
Dr Stephen Fletcher, an occupational psychologist at the OPC, points out that practical factors also impact some workers’ ability to do their job from home – especially those just starting their career. "Some of those people may be living in bedsits, they might be only living in one room," he says. "It might be quite challenging for them to be able to be as productive if they're sitting there, perhaps on the end of the bed, trying to work on their laptop."
Conversely, in some cases, working from home can open up opportunities for young people which might otherwise have felt off limits. For people with chronic illnesses or disabilities, being able to work remotely has enormous benefits. Working from home can also allow people to live in areas near to their family and friends, rather than having to move to major cities – often meaning they have a cheaper cost of living. 
With an increasing shift towards remote working (and big companies like Twitter and LinkedIn now allowing employees to work from home forever), will offices one day become extinct? Dr Ponsonby doesn’t think so. He believes we’re likely to adopt a hybrid model, with a mix of WFH days and office days. "I also suspect that people will look for the employers who provide that flexible work time, so that they can structure their lives around it," he adds, suggesting workers will vote with their feet. 
"There's a lot to be said for a vibrant, engaging workplace. When we've worked in those environments, I think we all find them energising and charging," he says. "On the other hand, we've all worked in terrible workplaces as well, which just drain you." 
On the whole, he concludes that finding a setup that works for you is an individualised process and that different people will benefit more or less from the time they spend in offices. As has always been the case, most teams are comprised of those who dread the Friday drinks rallying email and those whose voices can always be heard on the other side of the office. A hybrid model which accommodates a more personalised approach will – hopefully – allow employees to be treated as people with individual needs. 

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