The future of working from home: 3 business professors get involved
September 27 February 2022
As “working from home” becomes the new normal, some companies are trying to lure employees back to the office. Others argue that returns are unnecessary.
What are the benefits of working online? Has the company culture been lost as a result? Is working from home as effective as working in a personal office environment?
BrandeisNow asked three Brandeis International Business School faculty members three different questions about their views on the “new normal” of office culture. 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, shared their thoughts.
What are the benefits of working online?
Gomez-Cáceres: The rise of remote work is a revolution – we are suddenly discovering a new way of interacting and collaborating. When communication technologies such as the telephone and the Internet came to the market, they revolutionized the way we live and work. Today’s remote work technologies are upending the way we live, shop and work.
Before Covid, it was as if we were content to live on an island that couldn’t swim. Then the island was suddenly flooded and we were forced to learn to swim. After the water recedes, this new skill opens up new horizons and is fun too!
This is what happens with the way we work, especially in knowledge industries. Most businesses are content with face-to-face office work. Then they are forced to learn to work remotely. Now they are discovering that remote work can be productive and rewarding. In addition, it expands the geographic reach and diversity of teams, reduces commute time, and helps balance family and work.
Depending on the industry and task, remote work is more or less effective or even feasible. Take telemedicine for example – it’s a useful new model for mental health, but not in podiatry. In my field, we find that distance learning works well in graduate and professional studies, although we know it doesn’t in K-12. But in all cases, we have learned a new way of working that will only get better as new technologies develop.
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. This is not the same as managing an in-person office or meeting.
This revolution actually raises the stakes of face-to-face, in-office work. That means these face-to-face events have to be more effective and engaging than ever before – otherwise meetings can be held on Zoom too, right?
That’s why the back-to-office movement sometimes seems forced, or why it’s turned into a battle between bosses and workers or baby boomers and younger generations. How much remote work should there be? The push and pull we’re seeing is likely to be how the problem is solved. After all, every new labor technology brings new conflicts in the workplace.
But there should be a better way to solve this problem. We should go back to the island to reassess why we need offices in the first place, and how to use them better. At the same time, we acknowledge that online meetings and remote work may be better for some tasks, especially for some people. Then, we have to find flexible ways to allow people to be their best wherever they are.
I know it’s easier said than done. But building an inclusive culture and work environment is a management choice. Those organizations that seize this opportunity will attract the best talent.
Is there anything missing from family culture at work?
Mountain stressors: I think remote work can be used successfully as a complement 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 universal formula for success.
As part of a team, it is easier to build trust and confidence among colleagues in a face-to-face environment. If your team was built before the pandemic, you don’t need to build this trust because it already exists.
There is a tension between senior employees who often want to do what is best for themselves and the interests of a new generation of employees who benefit from these hands-on experiences, such as our young graduates. Face-to-face interactions help mentor and build new relationships.
I think it takes a certain amount of experimentation to figure out what works well. Business environments can even be 90 percent virtual; many interactions don’t need to take place in person. But I suspect a certain amount of in-person presence will continue to play a role in an increasingly virtual world.
Do you think “working from home” is as effective as face-to-face work?
Nano: I think the hybrid format works best from a cost perspective. I don’t think companies need to continue working in expensive office space, although some careers have no choice but to meet in person. Healthcare, laboratory research and manufacturing come to mind. Although out of the office, people are more productive when they zoom in on their desks. This flexibility, along with reduced shipping times and costs, enables people to devote more time to work.
We also see a new kind of timeliness. In the past, if there was a meeting at 10 am, people would gossip and end up walking into the office. Now, if the meeting is at 10 am, people will join and start on time. It was productive, and as more attendees communicated their image to everyone, people became more engaged, focused, and informed the discussion. Private protection is still possible with direct chat and chat broadcasting to all attendees.
Personally, I love going into the office because I’m faced with distractions at home like the TV, the dog, and the fridge. But if people feel they have a better quality working from home, they deserve this opportunity. For me, flexibility is what I enjoy, and the quality of my interactions with others seems to be better during office hours, classroom teaching, and conferences.
We’ve gotten to the point where work-life balance is as valuable as salary. I tell my students to join a company that treats you as a person, not a commodity. Employers shouldn’t care about location if the job is about to be done. I think managing this model requires trust, maturity, and resources, but anything that improves the quality of human life and increases economic productivity should be encouraged.