These days, home is not just where the heart is; it’s also where your office is … and daycare … and the gym. The precautions of social distancing may provide an element of commuting convenience but there is an undeniable corresponding chaos. On our bad days at the home office, commutes and cube farms begin to look a little more appealing. There are clear and convincing reasons why remote work is here to stay, but there are also benefits that should not be ignored from team use of commercial office space.
One compelling reason for working in the office is the clear delineation of personal and professional boundaries. Cell phones and email have always kept us tethered after hours, but for many workers the act of leaving the office can be both literal and symbolic.
While in the office, serving in the trenches with coworkers can build esprit de corps and boost morale. Those of us who have worked until midnight on a Friday know those aren’t the days when we cherish being a CPA. However, a sense of team obligation sometimes meant staying at work longer than expected, and we often relied on our coworkers for clues on when to wrap up the day. Without colleagues present to help gauge if the team is in good enough shape for one to close out the day and not feel guilty, many people at home have trouble disconnecting.
In-person interaction can also allow observation of unintentional cues that improve communication. No matter what we say, we often have “tells” that convey our true feelings. Videoconferencing gives us a little mirror-like window that allows us to see ourselves as we present: this makes it much easier to edit our appearance and carefully manage what coworkers see. While that might allow for the oft-ridiculed suit jacket with gym shorts, it doesn’t allow for the kind of organic exchange that is the foundation of authentic communication. Unspoken observations offer clues about the team dynamic and how to operate better within it.
Authentic interaction fosters creativity and facilitates the ability for employees to build off of each other’s ideas. Innovation is frequently a consequence of serendipity. We have chance encounters to thank for popsicles, microwave ovens, and a whole host of medical inventions. Instead of running into a coworker in the break room, catching up requires a scheduled call. Social interaction as we know it is being restructured, and the revised version offers fewer fortuitous opportunities.
Working remotely further complicates the team dynamic by creating a deeper reliance on email. In addition to miscommunication due to an absence of tone, it is also much easier for recipients to dodge correspondence since you can’t address them in person. No more walking over and asking people if they got your email. Since individuals can respond at their leisure, reliance on digital correspondence can delay the speed with which decisions are made.
Spending additional time with family is an undeniable benefit of remote work, but it comes at the expense of other social connections. Clients, coworkers, and employees at our favorite lunch counters help expand our perspectives in a varied manner that family cannot provide.
While some exposure to the outside world has been replaced by Zoom and similar technologies, these platforms are merely a functional alternative to meeting in person, and it’s not always optimal. People talk over each other and create awkward, compensatory delays. In addition, the fluidity of a meeting with group participation relies heavily on each participant having a strong and steady internet connection. Alternatively, it is more likely that employees will disengage during a videoconference and become distracted by other activities. In-person meetings come with built-in accountability.
While many companies haven’t experienced a reduction in productivity due to remote work, the benefits of gathering in the office shouldn’t be ignored. Creative minds will produce at home or in the office, but collaboration is the basis for exponential creative gains. Collaboration is enhanced by sharing intimate space.
The effectiveness of remote work likely means it is here to stay, but business owners shouldn’t rush to tear up their leases. Some office workers might still end up finding their way back to very sanitized and separated seats. In fact, this might be a good time to examine your leases and work to renegotiate them. Decreased demand translates to consumer leverage.
As we shoulder the burden of preventing a deadly contagious virus from spreading, the health and well-being of our personnel is our primary concern. Still, consideration must be given to what the workplace landscape will look like once scientists and physicians have a better handle on the epidemic and understand how we can safely exist with this virus.
The factors above will probably not make or break a business, but they may eventually affect growth, which will ultimately become visible in the bottom line.
Alyzabeth R. Smith, CPA, is a senior associate at Siegfried Advisory in Wilmington, Del., and a member of the
Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.