For decades in American households the most dreaded morning sound was that of an alarm clock. Sometime between 6 and 7am a beep or radio music signaled that it was time to get up and head to work. But in the early 21st century two things have begun to change. First, the alarm clock is going off a little bit later. And second, instead of putting on suits and driving to work, people are heading to the basement in their pajamas and turning on their personal computers. These are the early days of the new Work From Home generation.
With the invention of modern laptops, ubiqity of broadband Internet access, and advances in communication software, there is no longer a need to be in the office. At least not everyday. Thousands of companies are rolling out work from home policies and hundreds of thousands of people are starting to take advantage of them. What are the pros and cons of working from home? In this post we take a close look, as well as discuss what lies ahead for this new, rapidly growing generation.
The Good Things About Working from Home
1. No commute
If you live in the suburbs and work in the city, it is likely that it takes you 30 minutes or more each day to get to and from work. In the particularly busy metropolitan areas like New York, Washington, DC, and Atlanta, you are lucky if your commute is under an hour each way. Commuting takes time and energy (spending time in traffic is particularly draining). It is routine and boring and rarely productive or relaxing. Having no commute simply means more time to do things that you could not do otherwise.
For most people the ability to spend more time with their spouses and children is invaluable. Even a simple thing like having lunch and dinner together is big and game changing. In addition to spending time with your family, working from home makes it easier to exercise. It is a no-brainer to trade off the hour that you spend squeezed on the bus for an hour lifting weights or running on the treadmill.
Working from home likely implies flexible hours. Unless you have specific meetings scheduled you can take off a few times during the day as long as you get things done. Taking kids to an activity, getting shopping or errands out of the way, and enjoying a run outside or in the gym are the things that can be incorporated into the work-from-home schedule. For a lot of people, combining exercise and work is a challenge because their bodies do not respond well to a morning exercise regimen and they get home too late to go to the gym in the evening. Having flexible hours is a huge benefit for these people because they can exercise during the time of the day which suits them best.
3. Saving money and the environment
In addition to being able to spend more time with the family, having no commute has another big benefit - financial savings. With the cost of gasoline going through the roof, not having to drive is important for everyone. And we are talking big savings. If a tank of gas costs you $50 and lasts a week, cutting that in half gets you a cool $100 a month. The work-from-home folks also save money on food. Even in the cheapest corporate cafeterias lunch is generally going to cost around $7. At home, if you are stingy, you can spend $2 on a tasty lunch. This is easily another $100 per month is savings.
Working from home also has a global environmental benefit. By commuting less we save energy and reduce pollution. This is one of those rare moments when humans are in harmony with the planet - what is good for us, is good for the environment as well.
4. Increased productivity
Perhaps one of the most suprising benefits of working from home is that it can actually increase productivity. Assuming that your home office environment is conducive to work and you are able to focus, more work is going to get done. If you can't focus on work with home distractions (kids, lure of TV, etc.), you may want to rethink working at home in the first place.
A typical office environment is noisy, people are talking, phones are ringing, co-workers are coming by to chat, and there are always crowds near the coffee and soda machines. At home, these distractions are not going to be present. In addition, when working from home you will be focused more on your work instead of office politics. Playing politics and kissing up to the boss is not easily done over the phone, so people will get more work done instead.
The Bad Things About Working from Home
1. Brainstorming is difficult
Probably the biggest challenge in working from home is communication. When humans communicate a lot of information is conveyed via body language and that is lost when communicating via phone or Skype. This is particularly challenging for creative types and during brainstorming sessions.
Regular, more dry things like status updates and simple informational conversations are not a problem, but the activities that require passion and a blackboard are still better done in person.
2. You never leave work
Another danger of working from home is never leaving work. Since work is always right there, some people will be tempted to check email and work whenever they have a chance. And it is not because these people are workaholics, but rather, it is because there is always stuff to do.
For many, this is not going to be an issue, but for some people it will become one. This may offset the benefit of spending time with your family, as they will only see you next to your computer.
3. Entropy is after you
No matter how much of a misanthrope you are there is such a thing as entropy and it will catch up with you sooner or later. The dynamics of an office work environment stimulate us in ways that are not going to be present when working from home.
Each interaction brings in human subtleties and brings an opportunity for creative thought and innovation. When working at home these stimuli will not be there and everyone is going to get bored, sooner or later. The antidote is to get out of the house - work from a local coffee shop that has wifi, and once in a while go to the office and talk to your co-workers in person.
There are certainly challenges to working from home, but the benefits out-weigh them for many people. More companies and people are beginning to discover that working from home does more good than bad, as it introduces flexibility into people's schedule without impacting their productivity. The bottom line is that things get done and people are happier.
In terms of innovation and the technologies that are likely to evolve to help support work from home environments, there are several areas. We have previously written about basic software for virtual teams, as well as how to assemble an online office. But there is still certainly a lot of room for better tools for the at home workforce. From better brainstorming tools to video conferencing there are opportunities to innovate to make virtual collaboration smooth and painless.
And now, as always, we'd love to hear your input. Are you working from home now? If not, would you like to? What do you think are the pros and cons of working from home?