11 Reasons Why WFH Is Not All Unicorn amp; Rainbows

(Originally published on GeekWire)

In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, there is an awakening among CEOs that employees are capable of doing work and being productive from home.

This week, Twitter announced that employees can work from home indefinitely, becoming the first big tech company to make such an open-ended switch in policy. Twitter, the service, was buzzing, with many investors and pundits calling it the end of the office space as we know it.

For the last five years, there’s been an increasing chorus of engineers, designers, and professionals claiming that remote work is the future.

I’ve been working from home on and off for the last two decades. I find I can be more productive for some types of work and have more time to exercise, cook, and be with the family when I’m working from home. On the flip side, activities that need high-bandwidth collaboration and communication are harder. Certain aspects of team and company building are also much harder to achieve.

You can find plenty of pro-WFH articles out there — I don’t need to list them here. Instead, here are several arguments for why WFH isn’t always unicorns and rainbows:

1. That’s not what your team signed up for

Part of choosing a company to work for is to identify with their work culture and their values. For a lot of people, it was the desire to work side by side with other folks. For others, it’s a cool office space in a buzzing neighborhood. A switch to remote work is a bait-and-switch to your employees. Yes, some folks will welcome this change. Some won’t.

2. Fewer social interactions

Why do people go to a restaurant if they can cook at home? Why pay for a gym membership if they can buy exercise equipment to use at home? Why do people go to movies, shopping malls, crowded parks, sporting events? It’s because we are social creatures. We crave people watching, human interactions, and, for the more extroverted ones, the love of the chat by the water-cooler.

3. Complex change of process and procedures

If you learn from the companies that do have a remote workforce, you’ll see that it’s not simply a policy change. It’s built into the DNA of the company and its communication, recruiting, planning, meetings, messaging, prioritization, etc. Changing a company policy is easy. Changing its DNA is hard.

4. Siloed knowledge

I have no official statistics to quote, but recently I’ve heard from two founders who run 100+ people operations about the same issue with siloed knowledge. If you believe in “out of sight, out of mind,” you’ll understand that with remote teams there is a higher chance someone won’t get invited to a meeting, or someone will not receive important communication. When you are in the office, it’s not unusual for you to pass by someone and realize they should be invited to a specific meeting.

5. Two classes of employees

One of the biggest traps of a flexible WFH arrangement — as opposed to “we don’t have an office so everyone must WFH” — is that it creates two classes of employees. The ones that are at the office get more visibility, more opportunities, and are more in the know. It shouldn’t be like this and there are ways to improve it, but yet it happens. Every. Single. Time.

6. Difficulties with employee on-boarding

On-boarding an employee who’s not at the office is one or two orders of magnitude more complex. It’s logistically more complex (laptop, access keys, set up, passport checks, etc.). It’s also more complicated to get them to know the team and the work. Above all, it’s harder to get them to absorb the company culture.

7. Challenging for interns and new grads

One might argue that a remote workforce creates more opportunities for a person to work for a company without having to relocate — a legitimate concern in some instances of immigration, disability, or family-care limitations. It’s also true that interns and new graduates get a lot more value when they are sitting side by side with their manager, mentor, and peers. There is so much in communication that can get lost when working remotely.

8. More effort to maintain the culture

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That’s what management guru Peter Drucker once said. Every company has a culture that’s influenced by the founder. Often, it’s implicit and unwritten. Even when a lot of the culture is written, there is a lot more between the lines. It takes a lot more effort to keep the company culture when teams are working from home. The risk is the brewing of subcultures and countercultures. Executives or HR can’t take their eyes off the ball. Which is something that happens often with fast-growing companies. It also happens in dysfunctional companies in general, which most are.

9. Undetected disengaged employees

Let’s be honest. Most managers have a lot to learn on how to manage people well. Very few are exceptional at it. For most people at a company, their manager is their interface with the company. Great managers, after many months of knowing an employee, can understand what motivates that employee. Through a lot of interaction and data points, a manager can determine the level of engagement of an employee at each interaction. With remote work, this is harder because there will be fewer data points. Worse, a poor manager will go unchecked for much longer in a remote work set up. It takes a lot of additional effort from the management chain and HR to check the pulse in the organization (have I mentioned most organizations are dysfunctional in their own special way?).

10. Personal discipline challenges

Let’s call this the refrigerator problem. Or, the TV problem. Or, the puppy problem. For some people, the discipline of working from home comes naturally. For most, it requires careful behavior monitoring and adjusting. Everything from personal hygiene to knowing when to stop work can become a challenge. And everything that affects an employee’s health, physical or mental, will end up affecting their work.

11. Lack of respect for boundaries

When does the day start and when does it end? With a remote workforce also comes the cross-time-zone workforce. What? You thought you’d create a remote work policy and only hire people in Seattle? As much as you establish company policies and guidelines about respecting people’s working hours (lunchtime, breaks between meetings, calendar working hours) there will be exceptions. Sometimes, the exceptions become the rule.

So, I listed a few things — there are more, many more — that companies and CEOs need to be aware of before closing down their physical offices for good. An abrupt change is more likely to lead to a catastrophe than to a nirvana (remember Yahoo’s remote work policy fiasco?).

A results-oriented work environment (ROWE) should be the goal of any company. For the office-centric companies, the future of work will likely be a hybrid approach, which, of course, presents its own set of challenges.

The companies that can adapt and change their culture and DNA will fair better. Turns out, they always do anyway.

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Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.