The Dangerous Downside of the Permanent Work-From-Home Model
Sometimes I feel like I’m the only business owner who remembers the aftermath of 2008. I don’t mean the recession — I know we haven’t forgotten that — but specifically the push by big tech companies to have their employees work from home. Remember IBM? In 2009, 40% of its employees across 173 countries worked from home. They did it to save on real estate costs, and at first it sounded like a good idea, but then the program failed. Epically!
IBM’s Big Mistake
In 2017, IBM’s chief marketing officer called thousands of workers back into the office. Why? Well, as she put it, “really creative and inspiring locations” were a necessary part of IBM’s success. Reading between the lines, their company culture was falling apart and they were losing momentum.
At the time, Quartz put out a great article on the topic. They interviewed John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University. He said something that stuck with me: “It turns out the value of innovation is so strong that it trumps any productivity gain. [Remote work] was a great strategy for the ’90s and the ’80s, but not for 2015.” So why on earth do so many businesses think it’s a great strategy for 2021?
History Repeats Itself
I think between 2017 and now, a lot of big tech companies forgot about what happened with IBM. Of course, we didn’t have a choice about sending employees home during the COVID-19 pandemic, but honestly, I’m shocked by how many businesses have decided to have their staff continue working from home indefinitely. Twitter, Square, and Facebook have all jumped on the bandwagon even though the model has been proven to fail.
However, some CEOs aren’t falling for the hype. One of them is JPMorgan CEO, Jamie Dimon – one of the most highly respected banking executives of all time.
The Dangers of the Work-From-Home Model
In a letter to his shareholders, Dimon wrote that the work-from-home model has “serious weaknesses,” and a big one is employee on-boarding. I agree! It’s hard enough to train a new hire in person, let alone over Zoom. The odds of them clicking with and caring about the company drop like crazy. As Dimon puts it, “Over time, this drawback could dramatically undermine the character and culture you want to promote in your company.”
Working from home long-term kills creativity, innovation, momentum, and opportunity. If your team doesn’t really know each other, how likely is it they’ll be able to collaborate well and come up with fresh ideas? In the office, people come up with ideas organically when they run into each other in the kitchen or walking down the hallway, but there’s no such thing as a spontaneous Zoom meeting. Nobody is going to serendipitously fire up a Zoom call and accidentally inspire their coworker.
The Sklar Solution
I think the full-time work-from-home model is unhealthy for employees, who could feel depressed and isolated, and for businesses. Plus, my team likes each other — we couldn’t wait to get back into the office, and that’s where we’ll stay!
There are a few perks of the work-from-home model though. There are fewer interruptions and people can be more productive. So I’ve decided a flexible, part-time work-from-home option is the best of both worlds. We are closing our office on Friday’s and employees can work from home one other day. So they work together 3 days per week. We shuffled the 3 day schedule so someone is always here. I come all 4 days and work from home on Fridays. We will do this through the summer and reevaluate after then. I don’t want our company culture to fall apart while I’m not looking, and I bet you don’t either. I’m 100% certain it won’t be long before Twitter, Facebook, and Square get over their IBM amnesia and come to the same conclusion. The truth is that when you build a business, you’re building a team with a common goal and vision. If the people on your team aren’t actually together, I’m not sure that’s possible. We’d all do well to remember that!