Why the Future of Work Is at Home

Even a cursory look at the social, environmental, and economic impacts of working from home indicates that even more people could and should be.
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I like working approximately 15 feet away from my bed. (Photo: tranztec/Flickr)

I like working approximately 15 feet away from my bed. (Photo: tranztec/Flickr)

Once upon a time, working from home seemed a romantic and highly exclusive option for a luxury creative class. It was for writers and painters who sauntered out of their bedrooms at 10:30 a.m. to drink French roast coffee and eat locally made croissants and jam while lounging on wrap-around porches in Maine, before repairing to the typewriter or canvas. This has never been the reality of working in the home, of course. Domestic laborers and caregivers have always worked in the home, often without compensation and certainly without the leisurely hours of the phantom creative class sipping coffees over art. But the sharp decline in long-term employment at one company and the rise of telecommuting options means more workers than ever are doing their jobs in the same places they sleep. Even a cursory look at the social, environmental, and economic impacts of working from home indicates that even more people could and should be.

Though nine-to-five office jobs feel like a permanent and inevitable state of affairs for the labor force, the very concept of "the office" is mostly a 20th-century invention that was necessitated by white-collar jobs outnumbering blue-collar ones in the United States for the first time in 1956. "The frankly confrontational style of blue-collar work and industrial unions was disappearing. White-collar workers accepted the idea that they lived in a meritocracy—indeed, the very architecture of offices, with their massed desks and corner offices, literalized the climb up the class ladder," writes Nikil Saval in his analysis of the legacy of C. Wright Mills' White Collar: The American Middle Classes. As more companies become privy to the psychology impact of office life on their workers, a new emphasis has been placed on creating positive and engaging work "cultures" and "experiences" in the workplace. But the issue is not just that spending five days a week in a negative office space with symbolic architecture is bad for workers: It is that five days in any office is bad for workers.

The group that worked at home demonstrated a 13 percent increase in performance and a nine percent increase in overall time spent on their work calls.

Last year, a Stanford University study of Chinese travel agency CTrip took 503 call center employees and divided them in half, one group working from home four days a week with one day in the office and the other half remaining in the call center as a control group for nine months. The group that worked at home demonstrated a 13 percent increase in performance and a nine percent increase in overall time spent on their work calls, due in large part to the reduction in time needed to take breaks and a decrease in sick days. Yet the study also found that those working from home were less likely to be promoted than their in-office counterparts, indicating that management continues to value hours clocked at one's desk over actual worker output.

Worker output will likely remain the primary concern of companies when it comes to whether or not they'll allow partial or full-time work from home, but it has cost-saving environmental implications as well. The amount of time consumed by commuting to an office already starts a worker's day off with less-than-maximum energy, not to mention the energy emissions that go into each commute. A 2012 study in Energy Policy analyzed the energy savings from remote work in Ireland and found a net worth savings of 9.33 kilowatt hours of energy every day. Ireland already has lower-than-average commute times and lower rates of home workers than other countries, so the team behind the study determined an equation for energy consumption per commute (ECPC) and, using pilot data on the U.S., determined an average ECPC of 68.1 kilowatt hours for American commuters. The Stanford study also indicated that CTrip saved around $1,900 per employee over the course of the nine-month study due to reduced needs for office space and lower rates of attrition.

Commercial real estate firm Newmark Grubb Knight Frank analyzed five major U.S. office submarkets in 2015 to determine how much of the office space landscape has become obsolete in today's market, with results that indicate the age of the office is in decline. The study defines "obsolescence" as "the decline in the economic value of the office building improvement. This decline comes from net operating income insufficient to 'reward,' or provide a sufficient yield, to the office building improvement after adequately compensating (rewarding) operating costs and underlying land value." In plainer terms, if land values go up and rents follow suit but the buildings are not updated to accommodate the demands of the companies working in them, they become obsolete. The study concluded that 14 percent to 22 percent of the suburban office market and 7.5 percent of overall U.S. office inventory is obsolete. The study indicates that some factors related to obsolescence can be cured through renovations, but others, like size and location, are incurable for a labor force that seeks more convenience and better amenities if it's required to come into an office.

An exacerbating and difficult factor for many companies is that, no matter how positive and encouraging an office culture may be, there are simply some workers who do not function optimally in an office environment. According to a 2006 report in Current Opinion on Psychiatry, "Half of the competitive jobs acquired by people with a serious mental illness will end unsatisfactorily as a result of problems that occur once the job is in progress, largely as a result of interpersonal difficulties." And that is among the fraction of mentally ill people who are not consistently underemployed well below their skill level. A 2015 study published in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences found that disclosing a mental health diagnosis such as depression to a manager was viewed more critically than a physical illness like a thyroid disorder. It stands to reason that explaining how one's mental health issues are exacerbated by office dynamics can also lead to negative consequences in the workplace.

The downsized office space should represent a company resurrected as an exclusive destination for workers whose professional potential is recognized as inborn rather than unlocked only at their desks.

I encounter many people who assume that, when I tell them I work from home, it is because I need uninterrupted creative focus as a writer and am bothered by the nuisance of sharing space and time with co-workers. The reality is that my mood disorder and attention deficiencies make me a bother to co-workers: An office environment renders me irritable and distracting to my colleagues, and I become the burden. While it is fortunate that I have found a profession in which I can thrive while working at home, there are countless Americans whose mental health status renders them chronically unemployed due in large part to their ability to engage "normally" in the work environment.

The solution to obsolete office spaces does not require wholesale abandonment of the office but increased flexibility about what it means to be an employee. Major corporations need not surrender their downtown high-rises in defeat, but they do need to approach these spaces differently to remain relevant. One solution is relying on smaller, more permeable office spaces based on the co-working space models that were once the exclusive purview of freelancers and small companies. The management of these spaces has become easier as co-working software management tools like Cobot have scaled up to manage larger companies.

Cobot itself uses such a model, and Brian Crotty, its director of communications and business development, told me in an email that, while their first clients in 2010 were mostly two- to three-person companies, 2015 saw an uptick in interest from larger outfits. He sees this development as "a clear sign that more companies are looking for dedicated space within the inspiring atmosphere of a co-working space." These spaces are more agile and less tied to hosting bulky single company identities than offering practical, energy-efficient space to work on an as-needed basis. But as easy as it has become to downsize office spaces, major companies are not yet fully convinced by the idea. "We do get questions from Fortune 500 corporations about using Cobot to manage their own internal incubation centers or co-working centers that they create for their employees. The wave is definitely coming, but hasn’t quite arrived," Crotty says. The co-working space model would allow companies and employees who want to work at home a chance to compromise: Workers could be required to do a certain number of in-person work hours per week to maintain accountability, and the downsized spaces would save the company money since the entire staff would rarely be present all at once.

A cynical view of the state of the American labor force is that office parks and high-rises housing businesses are little more than glorified daycare centers for workers that suck fuel and waste usable land because management teams do not trust their employees enough to work without in-person supervision. A more forgiving view is that the American labor force has inherited spaces and conditions that simply don’t fit their needs but that are still worth attempting to salvage or re-imagine. The downsized office space should not represent a company defeated but a company resurrected as an exclusive destination for workers whose professional potential is recognized as inborn rather than unlocked only at their desks. It's time to recognize this as a reality of modern work rather than as a romantic notion.

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