Missing in action: What we might be missing by working from home

Over a decade ago, I was working from home full-time on contract for roughly a year and a half.

Simply stated, after about a year, I did not like it. 

Let me be a bit more specific.  

I enjoyed the opportunity, learned a great deal and it was an important transition for me at the time.  

That said, after one year, I looked back and realized I missed the social aspects of working in an office and interacting with interesting and intelligent people on a regular basis. 

The part that I did not like was that sometimes I would go a few weeks without having spoken to anyone in-person, face-to-face. I was working all hours of the day and night as the nature of the contract work had to get done within a strict deadline.  

I came to realize, as a social creature, this was not healthy for me and not something I wanted for the long-term. 

Although the compensation was good, after a year and a half, I made a decision to purposely and consciously look for a good old-fashioned office job. 

Fast forward a decade and here we are living in a new reality where there is a substantial amount of talk about a hybrid model of work for some types of jobs. 

Allow me to state clearly, I am not averse to such a model.  

In fact, I was lucky to have such a model, with great autonomy and control of my work-life for many years. 

Yet, I can’t help wonder if we have enough data at this point that clearly, undeniably demonstrates that working from home has great results, equally for individuals as it does for organizations and maybe even for some large city downtown cores? 

Time will likely tell yet my immediate thoughts veer towards what we might be missing, especially if we are working in teams.  

For the sake of brevity and as food for thought, I will quickly outline the areas that concern me. 

The first and foremost is body language. My own, and that of others. 

For several years, I have taken a great deal of time and energy to be cognizant of my body language, in meetings and even as I walk down the hallways. I use my own body language to try and plant subtle seeds of positivity and have even used hand jestures to promote a vision for the future.

Body language can speak volumes. 

I have learned to watch people’s body language as a high-level indication of their attitude and approach to work. In my past reality of a physical labour environment, this was very telling. 

As a quick example, imagine a staff member in a client facing role constantly keeping their back to where the clients will come to request assistance. Even knowing the client is there, they take substantial time to offer them assistance. I have seen this first hand many times in many contexts and in such instances, I assure you, less than good customer service was provided. 

As a leader, this is not something I would ever see if I were working from home. 

In one instance, after having noticed a large number of signs related to a staff member’s body language at work, I followed-up with their supervisor to validate if everything was going well. The supervisor validated with me that there were indeed a large number of performance issues that they were trying to address. 

You might be thinking that this was an isolated incident yet I have used this visual measure many times over the years as a trigger to objectively validate situations. 

Next, consider the concept of “having an open-door policy.” Something that I have always supported yet encourage conversation around at all levels before employing. 

In a leadership role, you might propose an “open-door policy” that promotes impromptu, spontaneous if not needed interaction which can work well if you are on-site. Yet, how would this work if your team were all working remotely? 

Could you possibly propose a virtual “open-door policy” somehow by saying people can email, call, send you a virtual meeting request at any time during the workday? 

I tried this while working from home during the first phase of the pandemic and in a six-month period, not one single person walked through my virtual "open-door." 

The first day I was back at the office, I had four hours of impromptu, spontaneous feedback sessions and conversations related to work issues.  

Granted, this could have been an isolated incident as a first-day back event. Yet, it was not and continued as it had historically. 

If teams are meant to support one another, being virtual makes it much more challenging to be there for one another when no one is actually near each other.  

Some people, including myself, have a hard time asking for help, especially when we need it the most. It is much easier to ask for help or even offer help when you are standing beside someone. 

Consider signs of stress, in a typical work setting, you might look for deviations in a person’s appearance of behaviour as natural signs of stress. Yet, if you don’t see your team on a consistently and regular basis and only in virtual meetings when they might be “on” for the camera, you might miss catching someone before they fall, so to speak. 

With the increase in mental health issues even before the pandemic, the lack of our ability to catch someone before they fall might end up being extremely costly for employers. 

With respect to impromptu team meetings for addressing real-time issues or brainstorming, how many emails would it take to organize an impromptu virtual meeting? 

Additionally, the prevailing research shows that many people learn experientially, by doing. How do you achieve this virtually especially within a training context? A training context for physical work might not lend well at all to a virtual space. 

In team meetings, body language can show you who people follow by looking at heads and eyes veer towards different people. You can spot support or resistance very quickly if you know what to look for.  

This intangible information can help you revise your communication approach and strategy, see who your allies are to quickly develop a coalition of support. Also, with keen observation, you can get a better sense of the challenge that lies ahead or see an opportunity without resistance that can be moved on quickly. 

If you have new staff members on the team, as they try and understand the group dynamics, in-person meetings can offer them a great deal more information than what virtual meetings might. 

Furthermore, on emails, what could the expectation be for response times, some might expect immediately responses, while others might favour responding on their leisure based on their personal working from home schedule. 

I have already come across several people who are working in virtual teams who have relayed their frustration with different expectations of email response times and it has created team conflicts. 

Needless to say, some new work norms may need to be developed, ideally proactively and before conflicts linger and grow. 

Another element that might seem trivial, yet I believe to be essentially important, is to celebrate team successes. I have participated in virtual team success session and I have to say, it is simply not the same. 

Alternatively, I once had a team success gathering after a very successful project and on-the-spot, the entire team was so motivated, everyone around the table was asking “what is the next project we are working on together?”  

At the current moment, I truly believe this will be hard to replicate virtually for work teams. 

Once again, I am not averse to the idea of a hybrid work model and even think we should have more flexibility, autonomy and control of our work life.  

Yet, I wanted to offer this as food for thought or even prompt action to mitigate some of these situations and maybe even encourage some innovative ideas. 

Lastly, when the pandemic and our leaders and employers encouraged us to work from home, my immediate thought was in the long run of work and life, I would rather live in a community with others close by rather than each of us living on our own small island in world of archipelagos; so close, yet so far from one another.