Lindsey Lyman: What we’re losing by working remotely

A COVID-19 Q&A on the hidden costs of working from home

Jun 04, 2020

Sections Strategy

Collections COVID-19 Crisis

Lindsey Lyman is clinical assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Chicago Booth. This transcript is taken from an interview conducted April 1, 2020.

What are the costs of working from home?  

I recently wrote an article about some of the innovation that’s coming out of this crisis (see “Four ways to ensure innovation continues after the crisis”), noting that one of the many innovations is the way we work. Social distancing has required many companies to have employees work from home, and while I think it’s great that we have the technology to enable us to do that, there have been some costs. 

At the same time, I’ve read numerous articles that talk about remote working as being the new norm. The authors say this was just the push that we needed, and now everybody’s realizing, or will realize, that this is just as efficient as going into an office and working face-to-face. There are consultants saying virtual sales models are going to be the new norm. Why do salespeople have to call on customers anymore? What we’re learning now is that this can work just as well. There are articles saying big tech is going to take over how we work, and so on. 

As I step back, I think, yes, technologies are enabling us to work, and yes, maybe we’re getting the job done this way, but there are significant costs that we’re not sufficiently reflecting on. 

There are four costs in particular that come to mind. The first is efficiency. The irony is that productivity software and workforce-collaboration software were created to make us more efficient, but I’m personally experiencing—and I believe many others are as well—a lot of friction that’s being created by using some of these technologies in certain circumstances.

The second cost is relationships. You simply cannot build trust-based relationships with other humans when you are not physically with them on a regular basis. It’s extremely difficult to do that virtually. 

The third cost is energy and motivation. Feeling a sense of belonging by being in a room with people who are giving you feedback and physical energy, that are working hand in hand with you and each other, is something that you cannot replicate by sitting in an office by yourself at your home, looking at your colleagues through a screen. 

It’s extremely hard to build trust in a virtual environment, especially when you didn’t have a preexisting relationship with that person.

The fourth cost is emotional and physical health. There’s been a lot of research that has documented the emotional cost of being consumed with screens, and although many of these studies are focused on the actual content, spending more time in front of a screen cannot be healthy, emotionally or physically. For many of us, the only exercise we get during a day is commuting to work, walking to the train, or walking to somebody’s office, and we just don’t get that when working from home. 

We need to step back and think about this screen problem that we have as a society. Are we further exacerbating it by forcing people to spend their workdays looking at a screen? 

I hope that the outcome is this crisis is not a further acceleration of remote working, but the realization that there is actually value in human interaction. 

How do remote technologies affect efficiency?

These remote-working and collaboration technologies were created to make the workplace more efficient, and when used in conjunction with working together, they’ve definitely done that. They enable people to get together when they can’t be together.

Some examples of efficiency gains include enabling flexibility of talent. Companies can hire people who may not be able to move to a city or move to a location right away. There are also many workflow technologies that make work more efficient. 

But when we compare the alternative, which is that we could be together, efficiency gains aren’t always the case. There are frictions created by collaboration technology, and some of these can be mitigated as we get better at using it and as the features improve, but I don’t think we can get rid of all of the friction that is created by not being with people. While these technologies are supposed to enhance efficiency—and they do a great job in certain circumstances—they create new inefficiencies that we aren’t accurately measuring. 

Recently, I was watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It was the first episode produced from his house, and he was joking about the process. He said, it’s been two weeks because it really takes a long time to produce comedy when you’re not all in the same room, rippin’ on each other’s jokes, making cuts, iterating live. It’s just so much faster when you can do it in person. We see these examples everywhere, in all types of work circumstances, and we need to measure them. 

How does remote working affect your health?

Working from home has some big costs

How does remote working affect relationships?

The second cost of working virtually and working remotely is relationships. In any environment where you are working in a team on an ongoing basis, you need to build trust with your team members. Examples of this include corporate teams, teacher-student relationships, professional services and clients, and doctor-patient relationships. Any type of work relationship that is based on an ongoing interaction requires trust. 

It’s extremely hard to build trust in a virtual environment, especially when you didn’t have a preexisting relationship with that person. Trust is built through a series of interactions over the long run, and a lot of that, I believe, can only be built when you see people in person.

I used to work for a consulting firm, and a critical value we had was that we spent time with clients Monday through Thursday. As a consultant, you are on the road. You are working in person with the client because your clients can’t trust you if you’re not physically there. I still believe that is absolutely true. 

I’ve worked in other organizations where people believe they can work remotely, and you often can facilitate the work, but you lose the relationships—and for so many jobs, relationships are critical. It’s dangerous to put less emphasis on relationships at work and to believe that we can continue to exist virtually the way we did when we were working with each other in person.

As a consultant, I’d have many circumstances where I would notice clients weren’t engaging. They didn’t want us there. They didn’t want to be part of the team. They were forced to be on this team because their boss told them to join it, and you could tell based on their body language and their withdrawing in the room that they didn’t want to cooperate. In many cases, I would just take that client out for breakfast to chat. Often you would learn about their life, something that was going on personally. You might learn that there were some politics—a promotion that they were passed up for and somebody else got—and as a result, they were still mad about it and they didn’t want to help that person in this project. There are just so many things you learn about people when you can start to get them to open up, and you can’t do that when you’re working with them remotely.

How does remote working affect motivation and energy?

I’m actually an introvert, meaning I get my energy from being by myself and thinking and working alone before I have to be with other people. But I still get a tremendous amount of energy by being in a room with other people. I used to be an actor, and I enjoy standing in front of classes for three hours teaching. It’s physical energy. It’s getting the validation. It’s seeing how people are reacting to you in a way that you can’t see on a video screen. 

Back in my consulting days, some of the most memorable work experiences I had were being in a room with super smart people. Everybody was passing around the pen, getting up at the whiteboard, writing things down, challenging other people’s ideas, working together in a way that everybody felt the excitement and felt part of a group. And that sense of belonging and that energy and the feedback that you get by being in person with the teams and the people that you’re working with is incredibly valuable in many work scenarios. That’s just something you can’t replace with technology.

Humans are social creatures, and socializing with pixels is just different than socializing with people in the flesh.

Another challenge that I’ve found with working from home is motivation, and this is a close cousin to energy. When I wake up in the morning feeling like I have a place to go, like I have people to see who are counting on me and are excited to see me, like I have a place to belong, that gives me more motivation to get up in the morning. And that’s something that has been difficult for me to adjust to when working from home, not feeling like there is a place where I belong. 

It’s now a virtual home, and temporarily it’s OK, because I still have in my mind that there is that place down in Hyde Park [at the University of Chicago campus] where I belong, and it will be there when we are allowed to go back there. But I can’t imagine a world where I’ve never had that to provide context and have no sense of ever going back there. For me, it’s been difficult every morning to get up and go sit in the dining room to work, as opposed to going to a place where there are other people, there’s energy, and there’s excitement, and you can see the learning happening in front of your eyes. You can stop by and say hi to colleagues and get their ideas or their feedback on something without having to schedule a meeting to talk to them. It’s all of these things that you get by being in a physical place with other humans that you can’t get with everybody dispersed.

How does remote working affect people’s health?

I’m concerned about my own health and the health of other individuals, and about the impact over the long run of working from home. As I think about health, I separate that into two buckets. One is emotional and the other is physical. We know the emotional effects of being socially isolated and spending too much time in front of a screen. Those are well documented, and we already know that as a society we are on a pretty dangerous path with respect to screens. 

Work screen time obviously is different from how a lot of people use screen time personally. The nature of the content that’s created or that’s consumed personally is a big part of the negative impact on emotional health, and that’s not exactly the same with work content. But there is an impact on social isolation. Humans are social creatures, and socializing with pixels is just different than socializing with people in the flesh. I do get concerned about what will happen to society when we are unable to interact, or when we get used to not interacting with each other—and the impact that that could have on us emotionally. 

The other is physical health. By staying in our homes and in front of a screen, we don’t have to walk anywhere. We don’t have to go upstairs to get to our office, we don’t have to walk to a train, we don’t have to walk from our car through the parking lot, and we don’t have to walk to somebody else’s desk to talk to him or her. Much of the exercise many Americans get is just normal workday commuting, and now we no longer need to do that and have to be self-motivated to use the supposed time that we’re saving from not commuting to do something productive for our health. And I wonder if we are actually doing that. 

I have a long commute to work. It’s about an hour each way. Do I spend those two hours sleeping, exercising, or doing other things that are productive for my health? Absolutely not. I recapture that time and either do more work or do something else around the house that may not be productive. I worry about what this would look like in the long run for many of us if we no longer had the need to get out of the house.