WORKING IT OUT
NEW RESEARCH REVEALS THE WORK FROM HOME DREAM MAY NOT BE THE PYJAMA PARTY IT PROMISES
It all sounded too good to be true: working from home, wearing your PJS all day, putting a load of washing on between emails and acing the dreaded school holidays juggle.
Less than a decade ago, the Gillard government sold us the National Broadband Network on the notion of “telecommuting”.
It was going to save the economy millions of hours in unproductive commuting time, improve our work-life balances, boost productivity, clear the roads, bolster our mental health.
The early research certainly looked promising.
A 2014 American study of randomly assigned call centre employees found a 13 per cent productivity increase in those working from home.
There was a halving in staff turnover among at-home employees, they took fewer sick days and shorter breaks and the company saved about $2700 per head in floorspace leasing costs.
Everyone, it seemed, was a winner. But wait …
It was a long-term study and, as time wore on, more than half the staff working from home changed their minds about doing it every day.
They reported feeling isolated, lonely and out of the loop.
Australian work space researcher
Associate Professor Libby Sander from Bond University’s School of Business said that was only the start of what the latest research had found about the work-from-home revolution.
“Contrary to what we might think with the technology we have at our disposal now, proximity to workmates and a workplace is actually becoming more important,” Dr Sander said.
Recent studies have found working from home is far worse for team cohesion and innovation.
A raft of US corporates have gone so far as to ban it altogether. Yahoo boss Marissa Mayer was the first to call her workers back to the office in 2013.
The staff memo at the time said that “to
become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.
“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” it said. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”
Dangerous territory, indeed, yet Bank of America and IBM have also followed suit.
It seems despite the wonders of modern communications technology, nothing can quite match being in the same space.
A study of engineers who worked together showed they were 20 per cent more likely to make digital communications with people in their shared office than they were team members working remotely.
They emailed each other four times more often to collaborate on shared projects than they did their at-home workmates.
And here’s the bottom line: their shared projects were completed almost a third faster.
There’s more research too showing working exclusively from home may not be all it was cracked up to be for our mental health.
One study of remote workers from 15 countries found 42 per cent of them reported trouble sleeping, compared to 29 per cent who always worked in the office.
Forty-one per cent of them reported feeling stress “always or most of the time” compared to a quarter working in a shared workspace.
“A lot of that pressure is not necessarily coming from the company, but the stress remote workers are putting on themselves,” Dr Sander said.
“They might feel they have to produce more, that they have to respond to that email more quickly because of what people might think.
“It seems they find it harder to wind down at the end of the day when they don’t go through the physical act of leaving an office to commute home, that mentally separates them from work.”
Then there are other studies that show rather than being a boon to family life, working from home is likely to interfere with it.
And, just as we always suspected, it can be career suicide.
A global survey of telecommuters in 24 countries found half believed the lack of face-to-face contact could harm their chances of promotion.
One woman who had a high-profile stint of working from home is almost the perfect case study to illustrate the findings of the worldwide academic research.
Media personality Emily Jade O’keeffe was ordered to bed rest while pregnant with her now 10-month-old baby Teddy who she’d conceived after 32 rounds of IVF.
A routine scan at 21 weeks led to emergency surgery to insert a cervical stitch to give Teddy the best chance of reaching full term.
After two weeks in hospital, the bed rest order was given and, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, Emily Jade went back to work broadcasting from a radio studio set up in her spare room, joining her colleagues on air every morning but not sitting in the same room as them.
“Yes, I stayed in my PJS,” Emily Jade confirmed. “When I was on bed rest, I felt quite isolated, there was lots of lonely time.
“I was happy to be working but it’s a creative industry. You need to be in the same room at the same time with each other.”
After four months of bed rest, Emily Jade continued working from home after Teddy was born.
“The company was great through the whole thing but after eight months of working from home, when the new year came around, I knew it was time to go back into work.
“You’re not motivated if you’re not brushing your hair, cleaning your teeth and getting dressed every day. You’re not as high energy.
“I’m a people person and people need people, even the very introverted. If you have a great work environment with a good culture, you see people and feel alive and needed. You need that personal connection.
“I thought it was a better show when I was there. We had better ideas. You need that face-to-face.”
Just as the research suggested, Emily Jade also found working from home was not always the easy answer to balancing the demands of family life.
“When you throw kids in there, it’s a whole other ball game. When you’re working from home, they still want you to make a sandwich or wipe their bum.
“We had a thing when the door was shut, mummy was working but then you see the little fingers under the door just to let you know they’re there.
“It’s hard to tell a six-year-old you can’t talk to mum when she knows you’re in there. You’re only half in the game when kids are in the picture.”
Like many work at home parents, Emily Jade would use kids’ nap time to rush to get things done.
“I think the ideal is to have a balance, half working from home and half in the office because work can be full of distractions too.”
The research concurs. There’s a tide of studies showing many employees in modern open plan offices can be so distracted by noise and interruptions, they regularly take work home to get it done. In fact, a third of Australian workers report doing just that.
Working from home is indeed on the rise in Australia although perhaps the take-up is more modest than the Gillard government had foreshadowed.
The 2016 census found 504,000 workers were working from home that day, a 65 per cent increase over the past decade.
About 14 per cent were farmers but of the rest, by far the greatest proportion of them were women, rising in numbers from the age of 23 and peaking at 45 years old.
An analysis by demographer Bernard Salt identified three main work from home groups: working mums, struggling artists/writers and what he termed “management working from the beach house”.
He found their income levels tended to represent either end of the spectrum: battling young families or the skilled well-to-do — neither group immune to the characteristic work from home stresses.
As with most things, Dr Sander said there was no one-size-fits-all model.
“If you’re the type of person who needs the structure and accountability of being in a face-to-face team to perform better, then going into the office is best for you,” she said.
“Then there are others who can work very well at home, but there are a few traps to avoid.”
Dr Sander said in her research, people who worked from home reported dressing in work clothes to help them be more productive.
“It puts them in a different mindset,” she said. “It makes the workday mentally different from the weekend.
“Also having a dedicated work space makes a huge difference rather than working at the kitchen table or on the couch.
Again, it separates work from home. And, at the end of the day, you need to go through the routine of closing your computer, clearing your desk and, ideally, shutting the door on your workspace and going for a walk. It’s that similar separation, that removal.”
Sound advice, but first check you don’t have your pyjamas on.
“CONTRARY TO WHAT WE MIGHT THINK WITH THE TECHNOLOGY WE HAVE AT OUR DISPOSAL NOW, PROXIMITY TO WORKMATES AND A WORKPLACE IS ACTUALLY BECOMING MORE IMPORTANT.”
BALANCING ACT: Emily Jade O’keeffe with her children Teddy James Murtagh (9 months) and Millie Valentine Murtagh, 7. ABOVE: Dr Libby Sander.