The digital revolution is redefining not only how we work, but where we work. A growing number of employers are embracing the idea of having staffers work out their own home offices. The “gig economy” seems to be generating plenty of freelancers who have set up a home office and spend their days looking for assignments that can be executed from their virtual workplace.
While the virtual workplace paradigm seems to offer a great life-work balance for many employees, it’s not always the no-brainer it seems. Here’s a look a the good, the great, the bad and the ugly when it comes to home based employment.
The Home Advantage: Work From Home Jobs
What’s the best thing about work from home jobs? “You can run downstairs to put in a load of laundry or wash the dishes,” laughs Peter Maloney, a former editor and writer at Platts, who now works from home as the principal of TopFloorPower, a consulting business. “I’m sort of joking, but I’m not.” For Maloney, who has had a home office for three years, flexibility is probably the best thing about his work arrangements. “That freedom is incredibly useful. I can walk the dog or deal with household issues if they come up.”
There are also significant cash savings. Maloney, a New Yorker, estimates that he spent over $1000 a year just riding the subway to work—and for commuters who take the bus or train into the city, that expense can add up to thousands of dollars more. As for other notable savings, the energy-industry expert says he’s saved significant money on clothes. Buying new threads or paying for dry cleaning just isn’t necessary anymore.
“You wardrobe can completely change. You can wear jeans and a T-shirt for weeks on end,” he says. “I have twenty shirts I actively try to wear!”
The Challenge With Home Based Employment
Despite the seeming multitude of advantages employees enjoy working from their home office—no wasted time commuting, less office junk food, freedom to manage your time—there are a number of potential downsides.
The one most frequently mentioned pitfalls is being hit with Forgotten Employee Syndrome, also known as “out of sight, out of mind.” This tragic fate is simply a reality for some. In a crisis, a manager may summon the workers that are close by. If that happens repeatedly, remote employees run the risk of being, if not expandable, then temporarily forgotten.
For workers who built up a long track record of in-the-office success and are used to being go-to employees, this can be a frustrating reality. And yet, sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder. And the pendulum of Forgotten Syndrome has been known to swing the other way—especially when snafus start snowballing. Then the forgotten employee can become a hero, a virtual sheriff ready to restore order.
Over-Compensation: Work From Home Office Jobs
An ancillary issue that is related to Forgotten Employee Syndrome revolves around many virtual workplace staffers feeling like they have to work harder to prove themselves and remind the mothership they exist. This anxiety translates into remote employees working more extended hours and actually increasing their workload, so they work more from home than they did commuting into an office.
A study led by Ravi S. Gajendran, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois, confirmed the tendency to over-compensation reflex.
“They feel compelled to go above and beyond to make their work presence more visible, to make themselves known as assets,” Gajendran says. “In fact, they almost overcompensate by being extra helpful, because they know in the back of their minds that their special arrangement could easily go away. So they give a little extra back to the organization.”
Many remote work arrangements now use time management software, such as Time Clock Wizard, to track hours. For the over-compensating employee, this can be dangerous. They may find themselves intentionally logging hours in the quest to show off. But who knows if the boss is even watching—or is even impressed?
Collaboration Conundrum: How To Work Remotely (Well)
Many remote workers interact over collaborative software, such as Slack, which provides group chat forums, private chat, email and even conferencing options so that remote workers and communicate with each other and managers at the central office. But there’s little doubt that sharing a common, physical workplace allows for more spontaneous interactions.
There is no way to walk into a colleagues office for an impromptu white-boarding session to work out a problem. You can’t print out a draft of a new email campaign and march it over to your boss for a layout discussion. That instant feedback loop that comes with the proximity of co-workers is something that is hard to replicate if you have a home office. But it can be done, via instant messaging, chat and impromptu Google Hangout invites. True, it takes more work, but it is possible for remote workers to develop a similar virtual workplace support system.
The Virtual Workspace Has Trade-Offs Too
Mitch Rosen, a North Carolina-based Data Engineer who has always had work from home office jobs in Chapel Hill for 16 years, recently changed jobs because he wanted to experience office work. A self-described introvert, he says he made a conscious effort to “stretch myself.”
After six months working for Duke University, Rosen says, “My universe has expanded in every way. My social skills are better, and during the day I have these people who I like who I get to hang out with.”
What does he miss about the virtual workplace? “I liked being able to cook and shop when I felt like it. I rarely worked eight hours in a row. I could work four hours and go for a hike.” Meanwhile, chore management, which was never a problem when he worked at home, has gotten trickier.
“Once I started going to into the office, things at home fell apart a little bit,” Rosen says with a laugh. “Now I have to do my laundry at night. ”
“Everything is a trade-off,” says Maloney, the New York-based consultant. While he says there are times working from home means he can zero-in on an assignment, the nature of his business—reporting and writing business articles and white papers—not answering the phone risks losing a job. As for the collegiality of his old place of work, he misses that, too.
“I think the one-to-one interactions, just meeting someone in the hall at work can be very useful” for networking or learning about other projects. “Those things can lead to other jobs within a company. Or sometimes, outside the company.”
Remote work is also isolating. “I still interact with people, but it’s all on the phone. If I was a younger person, and I had never worked in an office, I would probably be concerned about that.” Maloney admits this issue might be generational—that kids borne into our Social Media connecting world have not trouble to transition from virtual connections to real-world meetups. But he still thinks the workplace is a great venue to meet people and open up new doors that don’t really exist for people working remotely.
And then there’s the work-life balance trade-off—especially for employees with children. Working from home means you can take care of your kids when there’s a snow day, or they are home with the sniffles. But if those things correspond with a deadline crunch at work, the work-life dance can get thrown out of balance. It’s never a good feeling when family obligations and work deadlines collide.
Advantages Of The Virtual Workplace For Employers
Instituting a remote worker policy can give companies a hiring advantage, as remote employees can reside anywhere. Being free of geographic constraints, in turn, increases the recruitment pool. A business can now choose from employees across the country—or around the globe.
Managers can now hire the best people they can find, regardless of their location. Increasing the pool of workers can also drive labor prices down due to the laws of supply and demand. If there are a glut of remote workers available, it becomes an employer’s market.
Using employees who have set up their home offices saves money for companies in other ways. Having a worker switch from using office space to working from home can shrink a businesses footprint. Companies transitioning to a large remote workforce will shrink their business footprint and even downsize to a smaller offer—something that will reduce real estate costs.
Speaking of reduced costs, while some companies will provide a computer or pay for an employee’s internet and phone bills, it is not a given. In fact, it is often taken for granted that remote employees who work as freelancers or on a contract basis will use their own hardware and pay for their own web and phone services. With arrangements like these, a business will save on operational costs.
And that’s the irony of the new work-from-home paradigm. Ideally, it saves time and money, which of course then makes time and money.
Think about that during your commute home!