‘Work from home’ is about culture, not economics

Working from home (WFH) is not for everyone or for every company. It works mostly when individual employees of an organisation don’t need to work together often, or are embedded in workflows where tasks move quickly from one stage to the next. On a personal level, WFH isn’t feasible if you lack self-discipline and/or need the presence of your colleagues people around you to keep you from feeling isolated from company matters or simply, and more distressingly, lonely.

I’ve been employed with The Wire for 38 months now, and have worked from home for 34 of those. As a higher-up editor in the organisation who almost never works with a local team of reporters, I’m constantly looking for productivity paradigms, and hacks, that will keep me going as well as at the top of my game despite being removed from decision-making at HQ. In this context, I recently stumbled upon a seemingly influential study published in 2014 about how WFH can improve employee productivity by leaps and bounds.

I’ve heard a few arguments over the years from various proponents of WFH who cite studies like this to make their point: that there is empirical evidence from the ‘wild’ to show that WFH doesn’t just work but in fact improves employee performance and company prospects. As much as I want WFH to be a thing among organisations with larger workforces (50+ people) and with HQs located in metropolitan cities or megalopolises, I’ve noted with disappointment that most people eager to forward this paradigm often forget cultural impediments to implementing it.

IMO, a decision about allowing regular WFH options is predominantly cultural, particularly in ways that econometric or parametric tests in general can’t capture. For example, many organisations allow people to work from home in exceptional circumstances not because their management is old school but because it needs to be: a large fraction of the urban Indian workforce is not used to being able to work that way.

One big reason this is the case is that “going to office” is part of the traditional mindset of middle-class and lower-upper-class workers. Outside of entrepreneurial centres like Bangalore and smaller pockets of other Indian tier I cities, it’s hard to find people who even want to do this. For example, in my own home, my folks took over 18 months to believe my job was important for The Wire and that WFH was a legitimate way of doing it. The practice is certainly becoming more common but it’s not that common yet in the country.

(A subset reason is that many, if not most, offices in India are better equipped than their employees’ homes are. It’s sort of like the midday meal scheme but in a corporate context. On a related note, you’ll notice that most stock photos depicting a WFH environment show Macbooks on a clean, white table. Where’s the dust da?)

Second, the participants of the influential study cited above were all call-centre employees. This is important because call centres typically have a unique type of office (if it can be called an ‘office’ at all). Its personnel all work individually, not collaboratively, and prize – as the study’s paper notes – a quieter working environment. So the touted “9.2% minutes more per shift” and the “13% performance increase” are both results of employees moving from louder to quieter environments and so answer phone calls better, faster.

To me, this is not a characteristic feature of working from home at all. The study is simply about the effects of the removal of an impediment for employees of an idiosyncratic sector of employment. I suspect the experiment’s effects can be recreated without instituting WFH and simply making their Shanghai office quieter. As Jerry Useem wrote in The Atlantic:

Don’t send call-center workers home, … encourage them to spend more time together in the break room, where they can swap tricks of the trade.

Of course, one could argue that another factor working in WFH’s favour is that the employees are saved the commute – especially in larger cities where the business/commercial district is located in the centre, where costs of living are absolutely prohibitive, and the more affordable residential district is to be found the farther you move away from that centre. Delhi is an obvious example: The Wire HQ is located five minutes from Connaught Place whereas the bulk of its employees are housed in Mayur Vihar or beyond in the east and Lajpat Nagar or beyond in the south – both areas at least 12 km away.

This would be legit except I personally won’t buy into it because I think it’s a failure of urban planning that people have to commute so much, drawing worse lines between their professional and personal lives as well as segregating their daily lives into distinct, monotonous units with only the pursuit of higher efficiency at its soul. I say “worse” instead of “starker” because the line is disappearing in some places where it shouldn’t, such as in the form of carrying a fragment of your workplace on your smartphone, wherever you go, leading employers to assume employees are always available and employees to assume they ought to be always available.

The glamourisation of productivity is everywhere. Credit: Carl Heyerdahl/ Unsplash
The glamourisation of productivity is everywhere. Credit: Carl Heyerdahl/ Unsplash

The attitude of Silicon Valley technology towards free time has been tendentiously wolfish, so much that self-discipline has become one of the greater and rarer virtues of our time. Where workplace laws won’t go, “work anywhere” has almost always been interpreted to mean “work everywhere”. So for a WFH policy to be meaningful, you need people in the office ready to understand the difference instead of gleefully rearing for the leap. This is why I think Slack should shutter its mobile apps or, if not, equip them with features that will allow employees to truly disconnect, beyond the recurring question of self-discipline.

(Remember Fiverr’s ‘do more or die trying’ ad campaign extolling the gig economy?)

Moreover, modern cities are almost exclusively designed to be economic engines constantly looking for solutions to problems instead of being oriented towards fostering healthy communities and communitarian aspirations. By going for the urban sprawl and, as Fouad Khan calls it, the consequential suburban alienation, the modern city organically gives rise to gender bias and class discrimination. From Khan’s essay (for Nautilus):

Like the physical boundaries it draws between commercial and residential zones, sprawl enforces the boundaries set by our roles in society. Specific times must be dedicated to specific activities such as picking up kids from school or doing groceries. The organic social interaction that a city is supposed to facilitate goes missing. Even when time is allocated for socialization as a dedicated activity, it takes the character of a chore like everything else on the calendar. When activities are spatially segregated we find our identities splitting among our various roles, never quite able to bring all of ourselves to anything. Alienation rises. Just as physical access is more restricted for women in these cities than men, the role imposition is also stricter.

(And before you know it, ‘meet spaces’ are going to become commoditised: “For $50 an hour, meet random people in a quiet, safe environment at Watr Coolr. Coffee and biscuits extra.”)

Finally, WFH is most effective when the tools necessary to ensure employees lose as little as possible as they shift out of the office and into their personal workspace are efficacious. And such efficacy is a product of excellent UI/UX, lower communication latency, affordability, access to high-quality supporting infrastructure, etc. But most important is the willingness of those within the office to use the same tools to help keep you, and others like you, in the loop.

For example, a supervisor might be okay with Skyping a WFH employee or two WFH employees might be okay with running things on WhatsApp between each other. But that’s not to say other colleagues will. I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to because using Skype is not the same thing as booting Skype. There’s a cognitive cost to booting Skype: you have to stop thinking about whatever you’re thinking about, think about Skype and then decide to use Skype. This cost only escalates the more such tasks you perform.

This is why I imagine few others would use tech when they don’t have to, thus making it harder for communication-that’s-not-about-work to survive, in effect preserving the misguided prioritisation of gainful productivity above all else. On the other hand, as Useem writes,

The power of presence has no simple explanation. It might be a manifestation of the “mere-exposure effect”: We tend to gravitate toward what’s familiar; we like people whose faces we see, even just in passing. Or maybe it’s the specific geometry of such encounters. The cost of getting someone’s attention at the coffee machine is low—you know they’re available, because they’re getting coffee—and if, mid-conversation, you see that the other person has no idea what you’re talking about, you automatically adjust.

So yeah, WFH works for some people. But it’s not a good idea to expect a company to make a decision about standardising WFH options for all employees based on empirical analyses.

Featured image credit: Ashim D’Silva/Unsplash.