Four Reasons Why “Work from Home Efficiency” is a Mirage
One of my bedrock beliefs is that deep relationships lead to excellent engineering. When I’ve been involved with teams of people that genuinely care for each other, there is a trust that fuels hard work, creativity, accountability, and fearlessness. Few things in life are more fulfilling than going through the fire with people you care about and coming through on the other side with a memorable product that customers love.
How does a team develop and grow these relationships? By being together. In-person. Face to face. You have to see the wrinkle of Fred’s nose when he doesn’t like an idea. You need to notice Laura’s raised eyebrow when she thinks you might be onto something…or maybe full of something. You have to see that Daryl is fidgeting in his chair, which means there’s a big problem, and he’s hesitant to bring it up. And YOU need to share your explosive joy when things go right. Raise your arms. Bang the table. Smile and laugh effusively. Every project has successes and failures along the way, and it’s through the human sharing of those ups and downs that we build these bonds. And it’s these bonds that lead to exceptional teams and products.
With so many people working from home during the Covid-19 lockdowns, company owners and leaders are gaining extensive work from home (WFH) experience. Many of these leaders are thinking, “This work from home thing is working out pretty well. Let’s make it company policy that anyone and everyone can work from home.”
While there are some benefits to WFH, I think many of these benefits are a short-term mirage. Long-term productivity will decline due to the erosion of team bonds and lower-quality output from low fidelity conversations.
What are some of the actual “Work from Home Efficiencies”?
Before I delve into the negatives of WFH, I need to acknowledge some of the real positives of WFH.
In companies with open workspaces, it can be challenging to focus. Be it ambient noise, visual distractions, or unwelcome interruptions, doing work that requires intense focus can be challenging. With the right WFH set up, people can achieve focus so they can do solo work with existing plans.
- Zero commute time and remote locations
There is no time lost traveling to and from work, and people don’t have to endure the cost and stress of commuting. In addition, fewer people need to relocate to a new city for a new job.
- Improved tooling
Remote tools (Teams, Zoom, Portal, Remote Desktop, ++) have improved, and their spike in adoption creates a network effect.
- Lower fixed costs for the company owner
With less office space and lower relocation costs, employers can reduce their fixed costs. Also, many employers will reduce their headcount costs by paying lower salaries by hiring people to WFH in lower-cost regions.
Why are many of these benefits short-term?
Many of these WFH benefits depend upon the trust and planning that were built in-person over the previous months and years.
The key factors we need to acknowledge and understand are:
- Existing plans are the source of current WFH focused execution – plans which were created F2F.
- Massive withdrawals from your team’s relationship bank – and it’s hard to make deposits remotely.
- WFH distractions will increase once officials lift the lockdowns.
- Video conferencing conversations and meetings are low-energy and impersonal.
1. Your team is executing with previously booked plans.
People working from home are doing so with existing plans. Plans that were most likely created face-to-face. But what happens when that already-planned-work is complete? You must create the next set of plans. Anyone who has tried to plan remotely knows how tedious a process it is. While you can aid the process by writing down a proposal, it is extraordinarily hard to create effective plans with extensive feedback and buy-in over video conferencing and email. Because of this friction in the feedback loop, many stakeholders may have silent discontent. This will manifest itself in slow adoption of future plans, poor execution, or even dissent.
Planning is hard work. To forge a good plan, you must have rapid-fire conversations, and it’s during the planning process that major disagreements occur. Why? Because plans are a reflection of shared goals, values, and priorities. And when these goals are misaligned, people tend to get emotional. This is good! Emotions are a natural extension of humans caring about what they are building together. Working through these emotions and disagreements are high stakes conversations which are best done in person. So, to create your next set of plans, you need everyone involved to see each other, to hear each other, and to feel the energy of their fellow teammates. The very best way to accomplish this is in person.
2. Your team is making “relationship bank” withdrawals.
When people see each other face-to-face, they build relationships and trust. Energy and electricity is derived from being in the same physical space as another human. This is a foundation of humankind. After many many interactions, you build up a “bank” of relationships and trust. That bank can be depleted, and you must refill it regularly. We need to connect with our teammates for the same human reasons we need to connect with our significant others, family, and friends.
During the recent lockdown, we’ve been making mass withdrawals from our relationship banks. The success of online chats, emails, and texts, all depend upon those pre-built strong relationships. One-on-one video conferencing can serve as a small deposit into the relationship bank, but it’s no substitute for the real thing.
And don’t forget about new employees who are WFH. They are entering with an empty relationship bank and limited means for making deposits. When the newbie turns off their screens at the end of the day, that’s the end of their connection with their company and co-workers. There is no hallway to walk down or snack room to congregate in, so the new people don’t have a chance to learn the ropes from their soft-network of drive-by contacts.
Once our relationship banks are empty, we will see teams and individuals communicate less effectively, exhibit less trust, and be far less efficient in execution.
3. Distractions: When the cat’s away, the mice will play.
I’d like to believe that everyone is a perfect professional and will have the same work intensity at home as they would at the office. While some people will keep up the same pace at home, we know that human nature leads most people to work with less intensity when no one is around, and there is less face-to-face accountability. When alone, we are more likely to grab a snack, play with the cat, shop on Amazon, or check out ESPN.
Once the lockdowns are lifted, all of the usual distractions will be in play. As people become more comfortable in their positions and WFH, they are most likely to take advantage of the situation and do a little bit less. It will be a slow drip, and after a year of WFH, leaders will look up and say, “We’re not delivering as much as we used to. WFH? WTH?”
4. Video Conferencing is a poor substitute.
In a pinch, video conferencing (VC) is okay. It’s better than a conference call or a group chat, but there’s no real substitute for face-to-face meetings.
- 85% of communication is non-verbal
In VC, you lose so much of that non-verbal nuance. You can’t tell if people are engaged or bored. You don’t pick up on the affirmative nod of agreement or the subtle scowl of concern.
- People talk less in VC
VC is like being on a multi-user walkie-talkie. You have to wait for a pause, break-in (often with multiple people breaking in at once), make your point, and then look for a response. Usually, the response never comes because it’s too uncomfortable for the responders to do another break-in.
- Introverts participation is lowered to near zero
In good face-to-face meetings, leaders are in tune with body language and will create space for introverts to make salient points. In VC meetings, this is nearly impossible because you can’t see everyone. And calling out introverts without seeing their body language can have the reverse effect of putting them on stage when they didn’t want to talk in the first place.
- Beehive doesn’t buzz
There is no casual conversation – everything is scheduled, and talking to others can feel like an “interruption.” You miss those quick two-minute interactions before and after meetings. “Hey Sue, can you help me with X? You can? Thanks!” While this can be done in chat, Sue is far more likely to help when you talk face-to-face, and you are building a bond together. When she needs help from you, you’ll be more likely to help her. You and Sue are stronger, and there are hundreds (thousands?) of similar interactions in your team’s beehive every day. Working remotely dramatically limits this acceleration of work and building of bonds.
- VC is low energy
This reduced back-and-forth, loss of nuance and tone, and diminished participation leads to low energy VC meetings. You lose spontaneity and rapid response. And when meetings are low energy, they lose their value, participation decreases further, and what were formerly productive meetings are reduced to their bare bones or even canceled.
Don’t be fooled by the mirage.
While there are pros to WFH such as zero commute time, less relocation, spot focus, and lower costs, the long-term cons far outweigh these pros.
You are executing against existing plans, and you will have to create new plans for the next round of work. Without face-to-face interactions, the relationships and trust you have built up will erode. The WFH distractions will emerge post-lockdown and will result in lower output. And finally, VC meetings are poor substitutes for in person human interactions.
Building something great requires talented teams with deep human bonds. These bonds must be formed and replenished face-to-face. The spontaneous interactive flow of ideas is imperative to creating not only great products but also a sense of team and place in the world. While it may make sense to have some employees permanently WFH, if you’re thinking about making all of your team remote, consider these factors.
My advice – don’t do it.
In 2018, I published my 11 most important lessons from Microsoft email, and over 25,000 people read it and forwarded it to their friends and colleagues. Many people asked me to write in more depth about the topics in the email, so that’s what I’m doing. I’ve spent the last year writing and will share more of that content at AlexHinrichs.com. If you find this interesting, please forward the articles, subscribe to my email list, and follow me on LinkedIn.