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PSA: What You’ve Been Doing Is Not ‘Working From Home’

Working from home could make us more productive than ever — but at the moment, certain things may be getting in the way.

A recent CoreNet survey of working real estate professionals found that, as the workforce has been moved out of the office due to the coronavirus pandemic, two-thirds of respondents have a more positive view of remote work than they did before. Meanwhile, a Gartner survey found that 25% more employees than before are likely to work from home at least some of the time moving forward.

Those numbers are impressive, considering that for many workers, current circumstances in no way resemble the pre-pandemic work-from-home experience. When planned and prepared for, remote work is generally more productive, more satisfying, better for your mental and physical health, and cheaper than going into the office.

Stanford University Professor of Economics Nick Bloom is an expert on remote work. In 2014, Bloom designed an experiment in collaboration with the founder of Ctrip, a 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency. In his groundbreaking study, 500 employees were divided into two groups: a control group that continued working from the Ctrip offices and a group who would go remote. (Of the latter group, everyone met certain fundamental requirements, like office space in their homes and adequate broadband to carry out their jobs remotely — because no one should be expected to work from home effectively without those things.) 

“The kind of working from home people are doing now is so different, and I really worry about people’s mental health during this period,” Bloom told Bisnow. “People are working five days a week from home while trying to look after their kids … People don’t necessarily have the right equipment and technology. And the biggest issue of all is choice.”

Drawing on Bloom's experiment and other studies about working from home, here are four reasons the phrase is a misnomer for shelter-in-place work in the time of the coronavirus, and the practice will be more appealing and widespread in the future.

1. Working from home isn’t (supposed to be) for everyone

Whether pre-pandemic, full-time remote workers traveled often, had the option of working from their company’s office, had a membership at a coworking space, or even just took their laptop to a coffee shop a day or three per week, no one was mandated to literally work from their homes every single day for months on end.

Indeed, in the Ctrip experiment, participants were given the choice of whether they wanted to work from home or not. Half of the participants in the study chose not to. 

Now that everyone has been thrust into this mode of work without a choice, some people love it — “I think I will [work from home] at least 50% more than I did before!,” CF Capital Managing Partner and Chesser Companies Founder Tyler Chesser posted to Twitter — and some people think "it stinks." 

JLL Brokerage Senior Vice President Vinny DiMeglio is in the latter camp. DiMeglio told Bisnow that in working from home, he has found it harder to communicate — both with his team and with his clients. 

“Although video chats have been nice, they don’t replace the much-needed face-to-face interaction with colleagues, clients and vendors,” he said, echoing a sentiment many office brokers share: “Especially for CRE, you can’t replace in-person property showings with virtual tours.”

When it comes to his team, he said, remotely there has been no spontaneous collaboration, no real team building, and “no real brand integration — although JLL has been very good, trying to keep everyone informed, engaged, etc.”

According to Bloom, after the experiment, half of those who had worked from home chose to return to the office, even though it meant they were commuting again and earning less. The most common reasons a worker didn’t take to remote work were loneliness, isolation and depression.

2. Working from home is usually more productive, not less 

Schools are closed, babysitters may not be able to come over, internships are being canceled. For many families, kids — and spouses — are all at the house, all the time.

As parents across the industry have voiced, for many, striking a healthy balance of care responsibilities with job tasks is, quite simply, not happening. “Working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. is impossible depending on your situation,” DiMeglio said. “For anyone that has kids — I have a 2- and a 4-year-old — I’m going to say it’s impossible.”

While employers can offer incentives — like stipends for Disney+ subscriptions and remote learning tools that may help keep kids out of their parents’ hair long enough to move the ball on the day’s most urgent items — these strategies can only do so much.

“Normally your kids will be at school, your spouse may be at work, it won’t be forced — it’s not the best example,” Ross Forman, managing director of business advisory firm BDO USA, told Bisnow.

But before the pandemic, according to Bloom’s study and other data, remote work was generally more productive than working in the office — not less.

According to data from time-tracking software RescueTime, remote workers had a 4% increase in average daily time spent on their core work responsibilities and an 18% decrease in time spent on communication, compared to office workers. 

Remote workers also spent between two and five-and-a-half hours per day less on work-related tasks thanks to the subtraction of commuting and fewer meetings.

Bloom’s study also revealed a remarkable boost in productivity, finding that remote workers put in 1.4 more days worth of work per month — 16.8 more days worth of work per year — than their colleagues on-site.

In part, this extra productivity comes from the efficiency of subtracting a worker’s commute from their workday. A March 2020 survey by Airtasker found that employees who didn’t need to commute to an office daily saved an annual average of 34 hours per month in commuting time. 

Not all that time is offset into work — some of it goes to exercise, time with family, time to oneself. And the same survey found that skipping the commute saved workers an average of $4,523 per year on fuel. 

Some might say the sanity saved by not sitting in traffic is incalculable

3. Working from home means you have a good place to do work at home

Colette Temmink, former global head of integrated facilities management at Cushman & Wakefield and now Eden president of property services, talked to Bisnow about the importance of setting employees up for success when sending them into a pandemic sentence of remote work. 

For Eden, Temmink put together a 12-point plan for office re-entry, wherein step 12 was to consider employees that wouldn’t come back to the physical workspace — at least not immediately. The action items for employers included considering employee expenses, facilitating adequate WiFi connectivity, and making a plan for how company culture could translate to a remote team. In a perfect world (figuratively speaking), she said every employee receives a budget for setting up a suitable work-from-home space.

“Considering employee expenses could mean $150 to $1K per employee for the purchase of monitors, keyboards, equipment to help them be more productive at home,” Temmink said. “You see some companies looking at ergonomics or a reimbursement budget for equipment.”

VTS is one example of a company at which every employee received a few hundred dollars in reimbursable expenses for setting up an office in which they could be productive.

4. Working from home means actually getting work done — not staring into the abyss of your screen in an anxious haze, trying to pry yourself away from news on Twitter, pinch-hitting home-schooling and babysitting, or skewering your focus by worrying constantly about being laid off over Zoom or perishing in a science-fiction-blockbuster-worthy apocalypse

During the pandemic, Qualtrics surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. office workers who were working from home and found that over half felt more stressed or anxious than they did in an office.

It is no wonder. There are some stressful things going on right now. To DiMeglio’s list of strikes against remote work, he added “stress related to COVID-19 news, and uncertainty about the future” — and he is far from alone.

Under “normal” circumstances, remote workers averaged 22 minutes per day in breaks. Under pandemic circumstances, workers have to escort their grade-schoolers to video-chat meet-ups, care for their elderly parents whose adult day care centers have been shuttered, or are simply working under a prohibitive amount of anxiety right now. Across all industries, they are often taking more than 22 minutes a day in breaks or working entirely different hours than they did previously. 

Experts say breaks are critical to productivity, and now more than ever, in order to get more done, remote workers may need to spend more time not working.

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In spite of all this, Bloom thinks we will see a big increase in working from home — not “working” from home in a pandemic, but working from home with all the right circumstances and tools in place.

“Companies have invested in the technology and systems needed to allow companies to work from home, so companies that before might have been wary of the idea now have it up and running,” he said. 

“It is very hard to put the genie back in the bottle, and studies like ours have shown it is great for employee retention and for productivity — when done in the right way.”