With “work from home” becoming the new norm, some companies are trying to lure workers back to the office. Others argue that the return isn’t necessary.
What are the benefits to online modalities of work? Is there anything lost in company culture as a result? Is working from home as effective as in person office environments?
BrandeisNow asked three Brandeis International Business School faculty members three different questions to get their perspective on the ‘new normal’ of office cultures. Benjamin Gomes-Casseres ‘76, Peter A. Petri Professor of Business and Society, Daniel Bergstresser, associate professor of finance, and Ahmad Namini, professor of the practice of business analytics, share their thoughts.
What are some of the benefits of online modalities of work?
Gomes-Casseres: The rise of remote work is a revolution – we’ve suddenly discovered a new way to interact and collaborate. When communication technologies such as the telephone and the internet came on the market, they revolutionized how we lived and worked. The technologies of remote work today are disrupting the way we live, shop, and work.
Before Covid, it is as if we were content living on an island without being able to swim. Then the island suddenly got flooded and we were forced to learn to swim. Once the waters receded, this new skill has opened up new vistas, and it is fun too!
That’s what happened with our way of working, especially in knowledge industries. Most businesses had been content with in-person, in-office work. Then they were forced to learn to work remotely. Now they find that remote work can be productive and rewarding. Plus it extends the geographic reach and diversity of teams, cuts commuting time, and helps with juggling home and work.
Depending on the industry and task, remote work is more or less effective, or even feasible. Take telehealth – it is a useful new modality in mental health, but not so in podiatry. In my field, we find that remote learning can work well in graduate and professional studies, though we know it doesn’t in K-12. But in all cases, we have learned a new way of working, and that way will only get better, as new technologies are developed.
Now that businesses are working more online and with more diverse teams, they will need to learn to manage that environment to get the most out of it. It is not the same as managing an in-person office or meeting.
This revolution actually raises the stakes for in-person, in-office work. It means those in-person activities have to be more effective and engaging than before – or else the meeting could just as well have been on Zoom, right?
That is why the return-to-the-office movement sometimes seems forced, or why it becomes a battle between bosses and workers, or between baby-boomers and younger generations. How much remote work should there be? The push and pull we’ve seen will likely be how the matter gets settled. After all, every new labor technology has brought with it new strife in the workplace.
But there ought to be better ways to settle the matter. We ought to return to the island to re-evaluate why we want offices in the first place, and how to use them better. At the same time, we’d admit that online meetings and remote work can be superior for some tasks and especially for some people. Then we must find flexible ways to let people do their best work, regardless of location.
I know that is easier said than done. But building an accommodating culture and work environment is a managerial choice. Those organizations that seize this opportunity will attract the best talent.
Is there anything lost in work from home culture?
Bergstresser: I think working remotely can be successfully used as a compliment to in-person work. Companies are experimenting with what can be done in person and what can be done remotely, and I don’t think we have a general formula for success yet.
Working as a member of a team, it’s easier to build trust and confidence among colleagues within an in-person environment. If your team was built prior to the pandemic, there isn’t this need to develop that trust, as it is already there.
There is a tension between the interests of senior employees, who often want to do what is best for themselves, and newer generations of employees, for example our young graduates, who benefit from these in-person experiences. In-person interaction is helpful for mentorship and building new relationships.
I think a certain amount of experimentation is needed to figure out what works well. A business environment could even be 90 percent virtual; many interactions don’t need to occur in-person. But I suspect that some amount of in-person presence will continue to be useful in an increasingly virtual world.
Do you think ‘work from home’ is as effective as in-person work?
Namini: I think from a cost point, a hybrid format works best. I don’t think companies need to continue to work from expensive office spaces, although some professions have no choice but to meet in-person. Healthcare, laboratory research, and manufacturing come to mind. People are more efficient working from zoom on their desktop, despite not being physically in an office. This flexibility and decreased transportation time and cost permits people to devote more hours to work.
We’ve also seen a new promptness. In the past, if a meeting was at 10am people would engage in small talk and eventually wander into the office. Now if a meeting is at 10am people join and get started on time. It’s productive and with more attendees having their image transmitted to all, people are more engaged, more attentive, and offer more to the discussion. Private conservations can still be had via direct chats as well as a chat broadcast to all attendees.
Personally, I enjoy coming into the office because I’m faced with distractions at home, such as the television, the dog, and the refrigerator. But if people feel they produce a better quality of work from home, they should be given this opportunity. For me, the flexibility is what I enjoy and the quality of my interaction with others during office hours, class instruction, and general meetings seems to be better.
We’re getting to a point where work life balance is as valuable as salary. I tell my students to join a company that treats you like a person rather than a commodity. If the work is getting completed, employers shouldn’t care about location. I think it takes trust, maturity, and resources to manage this modality, but anything that enhances the quality of life for human beings and enhances economic productivity should be encouraged.
Sept. 27, 2022