Don’t Give Up on Remote Work, Even If You Hate It
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A new year is well underway, but many of us are exactly where we were last March: working from home. Most people enjoy that, the data show, finding that it reduces stress and increases productivity. But what about the vocal minority who are truly miserable?
Some form of location flexibility is probably here to stay. So it’s worth the effort to find a way to work from home that you don’t hate. That starts with figuring out what exactly you hate about it.
First, consider whether it’s working from home that bothers you, or actually your job. If you felt miserable when you were going into the office every day, you probably didn’t tell yourself, “Man, I really hate this building.” When the problem is the work itself, you have bigger career questions to answer.
If it’s not, then your particular role might be making remote work especially hard. Managers find it much more difficult than do those who don’t supervise others. While the rest of us have been able to reallocate commuting time to personal activities, managers are using that time (and then some) to work longer hours, research shows.
Managers and people in collaborative jobs with lots of meetings are also the most likely to suffer Zoom fatigue. Restructuring the work itself would be a challenge, but it might be necessary. Marissa King, the author of “Social Chemistry: Decoding the Elements of Human Connection,” says that means answering questions such as: What do we actually need to do to support one another? What makes a meeting effective? What constitutes a productive workday? Cutting the costs of collaborating will pay off even after the return to the office.
Or maybe your company’s culture is not well-suited to remote work. King says that only strong company cultures translate well to the work-from-home world. In those with weak cultures, employees don’t know what’s expected of them — and readily fill in the blanks with biases or misunderstandings. And any company that can’t function without eight hours of meetings a day will struggle to function remotely. Conversely, it’s easier to work from home for a company where people rarely send emails at night (they do exist).
One thing that’s probably not to blame for your anti-WFH attitude is your personality. Despite headlines about how extroverts suffer more from remote working, introverts also miss the social fix they get from casual office interactions.
But people with different personalities probably don’t suffer in the same way. King distinguishes between “segmenters” and “integrators.” Segmenters are those who usually draw a bright line between work and home; they keep separate work and home calendars, don’t mix work friends with personal friends, and may even live rather far from the office. Integrators are more comfortable jumbling their work and home lives.
Segmenters might struggle with WFH right now because they’ve lost the boundaries that made them comfortable. (This may be one reason that men, who on average are more accustomed to keeping work and home life separate, are more dissatisfied with WFH arrangements.) But integrators have difficulties of their own. They’re often the people who have a hard time switching off email at the end of the day. Thinking about which way you lean might help pinpoint what’s bugging you, and how to fix it. Hewing to daily routines and wearing work-from-home clothes (not sweatpants) might help segmenters feel more in control; stopping work at a certain time each day might help integrators find balance.
Of course, some things can’t be changed right now. Loneliness has been one of the biggest complaints among those working remotely this year, but that’s more about the pandemic than work. (Normally, a remote worker can compensate for her monastic days with super-social nights and weekends.)
And some WFH problems may not be solved by returning to the office. For example, fed-up WFH-ers say they have no privacy and too many interruptions. They’re irritated by the chatter of their spouse and kids. But note that lack of privacy, constant interruptions and intrusive sounds are also the biggest complaints about open offices.
If fixing what’s bad about WFH isn’t realistic, then pay more attention to what’s good about it. A survey of knowledge workers conducted by London Business School’s Julian Birkinshaw in 2013 and again in 2020 showed that most of them find benefits from working at home: They are able to spend more time on the work they deem valuable and important, more time on training and development, and less time politicking with managers and colleagues.
Even if you’ve hated working from home during the pandemic, it doesn’t mean you’ll never enjoy remote work in the future. And that’s good, because the future will probably include some WFH elements. In any case, the pandemic is going to last several more months. There’s still time to adapt.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.
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