Is Working From Home Really The Same As Working? It Depends.

By

Leonard Zwelling

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/17/opinion/coronavirus-office-telecommuting.html

         Lots of people were already working from home before the coronavirus and its attendant closures threw many more people into the home office pool. By contrast, the work of the front-line caregivers and first responders never drifted from its traditional sites—hospitals, ambulances, and police and fire stations. Grocery stores and pharmacies continue to operate. But what about the great swath of people who usually work in offices, but who are now confined to their couches along with screaming out-of-school kids and various pets? And what about those out of work because so many businesses have been closed?

         I fully understand why the forced “home work” movement occurred and am not suggesting that it was a mistake. It is reasonable to assume fewer people would be acutely infected with the new coronavirus than would have been the case if everyone had crowded around the water cooler and discussed the most recent episode of an HBO mini-series. Working from home was part of mediation. The same is true of those working in small businesses that have shuttered. They are safe, but not better off. President Trump is right. We need to figure out a way to move on, but it must be as careful and scientifically-driven as the best of plans thus far implemented.

         There are those leaders who are now encouraging a wholesale movement to home working on a permanent basis. It certainly sounds like it would increase productivity as it would end commuting. It would also end many businesses that count on foot traffic at lunch hour downtown, like restaurants, and would free up untold commercial real estate no longer needed to house cubicles. Is this a potential benefit that would emerge from the corona crisis? Is it really a benefit? Will some jobs never come back? Ditto some businesses. Will former places of business board up?

         I think it is far more complicated than many leaders are suggesting.

         People interact best in person and interaction is often the key to creativity, innovation, and discovery. This is particularly true in the sciences where team science has supplanted the solitary toiling investigator as the most common model of scientific progress. I think most people would agree that the best work they have ever done is with other people and with other people is not best done on Zoom.

         There are proposals afoot to delay the repopulation of many offices. I cannot imagine what the leaders are waiting for. The virus is not going away. We have to learn to live with it which means we have to learn to work with it. It may mean the reconfiguration of work spaces. So be it. It may mean everyone wears masks, washes their hands a lot, and drowns in hand sanitizer. That’s OK, too. But we have got to get back to doing our work, especially our intellectual work in the work place. We’re adults. We dress up to go to the office. We need to go to the office. Working from home is not the same.

         I fear the conversion to an all home work army will negate the benefits of personal interaction. I find you simply cannot read faces and grasp body language on Zoom. Those means of human contact matter.

         What also matters is the use of a chalkboard or the modern equivalent, a white marker board. Ideas take shape around conference tables. I am sure this can be done remotely, but is it as effective?

         I fully understand why everyone had to go home. I also believe not all that much has changed. The virus is still here and spreading. Social distancing must continue and a decision with regard to the wisdom of opening schools needs to be made. Should we use the young to drive to herd immunity or continue to draft parents to be home school teachers?

         There are a series of critical choices that must be made with regard to life under the threat of the novel coronavirus. But choose we must. Giving up our offices to work at home seems unwise to me even if it suppresses traffic and eliminates commutes. There’s a reason the office still exists and it is not obsolete yet. Electronic communication cannot make up for the lack of interpersonal communication.

         Working from home was fine for a few months. We now know what we are facing. It’s not going away. Either it will dictate how we work or we will figure out how to work while it continues to threaten us. I vote for the latter.

Leonard Zwelling