A little more than 18 months ago, working from home was an occasional perk for many of us. And then, in a matter of weeks, it became the norm. At points during 2020, roughly 50% of the workforce was home-based and, for professionals, the proportion was significantly higher. Now we're faced with the prospect of going back to work, but many of us rather like homeworking. So, what is the ideal split between work from work and work from home (WFH)? Here are some questions to ask.
What are the good points about working from home?
We all now know that WFH can mean no stressful commute (the average US and UK commute times are about an hour round trip), more time with your family, flexibility, financial savings, and uninterrupted time to focus on tasks such as writing reports.
What are the good points about the office?
There is no substitute for meeting people face-to-face. Working together builds esprit de corps and corporate culture. It allows for chance meetings, the dissemination of knowledge, and the spread of informal intelligence. It can also be very difficult to replicate the creative buzz of an office while working remotely. A recent survey by the workplace effectiveness consultancy Leesman of nearly 150,000 workers worldwide found that 28% of homeworkers said they were unable to collaborate on creative work while at home.
What do I need to look out for?
The biggest issue remains that people who work in the office may be viewed as "better" employees than those who work from home. This may happen even if the company has every intention of treating the groups equally. It is notable that during the pandemic we saw people going to the office unnecessarily in order to get face time with those they believed could advance their careers.
Ask who had a 'good pandemic'
There's a longer-term question over WFH, too, which points to how complex this question is. The people who have had it easiest have tended to be professionals in their 30s and older. They are well educated, earn more, and are knowledge workers. As a group, they have had a far more manageable pandemic. But part of the reason for this is the social capital they built up in their careers before COVID-19 struck. Social capital includes your network, knowledge, reputation, and so on. If you're in an office, you build it almost without thinking. But it's much harder to do remotely — and this is one reason why younger staff have struggled more.
Could WFH affect my income?
So far, most people have focused on the savings they've made by not commuting. But many companies weight your salary depending on where you are based. Thus, if you work in an expensive city like New York, Hong Kong, or London, you are paid more — often significantly so. If, however, you are working from home four days a week, your employer may reconsider this. For many relocators, the dream has always been London salary plus Northumberland living, not Northumberland salary plus Northumberland living costs. However, there are signs businesses are now looking at geography and pay. In May 2020, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that if you wanted to work remotely, full time, you could, but "we'll adjust salary to your location".
Are all companies alike?
If your employer is a highly distributed business with people all over the place, a tech business that has remote work woven into its DNA, or a business where your output is very easy to measure, then WFH is easier. We have seen a number of tech businesses go entirely remote. But others are likely to return to more traditional models. There's a cultural factor here, too. The acceptance of WFH varies considerably around the world; in many Asian countries, for instance, it remains rare. The good news on this front is that the pandemic has made employers recognise that many roles that had previously been considered office-only can be done at least partly from home. Your employer may still be formulating a policy, so it's worth approaching the HR department and your line manager to ascertain what is possible.
Are there any truly surprising points?
Yes. Many people actually like a bit of a commute. They find it helps create a line between work and life and gives them time to both prepare for work and decompress afterwards. A famous 2001 study in the San Francisco area found that only 1.2% of those surveyed said an ideal commute was no commute at all. The ideal commute length was between 15 and 20 minutes.
What do we need to think about beyond WFH?
Flexible working isn't just about working from home. Prior to the pandemic, increasing numbers of people were working compressed weeks (four days in five), doing short Fridays in summer months, or working part time, while some companies were allowing employees to take as much holiday as they liked. In many roles, working five days a week was merely customary, rather than necessary.
So, is there an answer?
While it's hard to give a definite number, many experts and academics have suggested that the ideal number of days to work from home a week is about two. This seems a pretty good number. Two days at home means you can accomplish the sort of tasks that benefit from quiet, concentration, and solo time. It also means 40% less commuting, more time with your family, and flexibility. But you are still in the office enough to benefit from networking, chance meetings, and the social side. It remains a balance, albeit one that has shifted in favour of WFH.
Even so, we are still in uncharted territory. The pandemic has been an unprecedented exercise in working from home. But 2021 will see an unprecedented return to work — and nobody knows entirely what to expect. Expect the unexpected and be prepared to flex your WFH plans accordingly.
Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.
Rhymer Rigby is an FM magazine contributor and author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.