Working from home has some big costs

Apr 28, 2020

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Some have predicted that one result of the COVID-19 crisis will be a permanent shift toward more remote working. But Chicago Booth’s Lindsey Lyman says that while digital tools are helping us get the job done from home, they come with costs to efficiency, relationships, energy, and health.

Video Transcript

I recently wrote an article about some of the innovation that’s coming out of this crisis, and one of the many innovations is the way we work. Social distancing has created responses from 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 to that.

At the same time, I’ve read numerous articles that talk about remote working as being the new norm. Things like, “This was just the push that we needed to make this the new normal, and now everybody’s realizing, or will realize, that this is just as efficient as going into an office and working face-to-face.” Articles from sales-force-effectiveness consultants are 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.”

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

What are the four costs that we’re ignoring? There’s many more than four, but there’s four that come to mind in many circumstances. 

The first is efficiency. The irony in this situation is that productivity software and workforce-collaboration software was created to make us more efficient, but I’m certainly experiencing, and many others I believe are as well, that there’s 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 that are giving you feedback, physical energy, are working hand-on-hand with each other, is an energy that you cannot replicate by sitting in an office by yourself at your home, looking at your colleagues through a screen.

And then the fourth cost is emotional and physical health. There’s been a lot of research that’s documented the emotional costs of being consumed with screens, and although many of these are focused on the actual content that’s being consumed, spending more time behind 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, walking to somebody’s office, and we just don’t get that when you’re working from home. You don’t have the necessity. So I think we really need to step back and think about this screen problem that we have as a society, and are we further exacerbating that by forcing people to spend their workday looking at a screen as well?

I hope that we all come out of this with a counter-conclusion to what the tech industry is predicting: that this is not going to be a forced acceleration of adopting workplace virtual-collaboration tools, but that we are also going to step back from this and look at the costs of this and hopefully validate the value of in-person human interactions in the workplace.