Commentary: Are you better off working from home than in the office?
With open-plan offices, dual-income households and the need for deep thinking, might you be more productive working from home? RMIT’s Carys Chan sheds some light.
SINGAPORE: The case for working from home remains unclear.
On one hand, employees who work remotely have been shown to experience increased mental health risk, primarily due to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
On the other hand, a number of studies have found that employees working in modern open-plan offices are so easily distracted and constantly interrupted, they cannot concentrate on their tasks.
Furthermore, open-plan offices do not necessarily increase face-to-face interactions and collaboration, as employees prefer e-mail and messaging.
Given the changing family arrangements in Singapore and the complex, cross-cutting nature of work today, working from home may help to alleviate some of the common work and family demands and stress experienced by employees.
REMOTE WORKING CAN LEAD TO IMPROVED WORK AND FAMILY LIFE
For a start, working from home enables employees with home responsibilities to continue earning a stable income, instead of forcing them into an either-or situation.
The prevalence of dual-income households and a rapidly ageing population have meant that many Singaporean employees shoulder both childcare and eldercare responsibilities.
While many Singaporean households can now afford to hire foreign domestic workers to help out with their household chores and care-giving responsibilities, working long hours and the neglect of family life have led many to feel guilty about not spending quality time with family.
Although research has found that the amount of time spent with family has little impact on family satisfaction and mental health, remote working generally provides more opportunities for quality time with family.
Additionally, when employees are given the flexibility to attend to their work and home responsibilities without any time or spatial restrictions, they are more likely to engage in their work and family responsibilities effectively and efficiently.
As a result, employees report feeling less stressed and experience enhanced health and well-being. This increases employee retention, and may also attract a more diverse range of employees to organisations.
OPEN-PLAN OFFICES KILL COLLABORATION AND PRODUCTIVITY BUT ARE STILL COMMON
Over the years, offices around the world have seen the shift from private cubicles to open-plan layouts, to encourage collaboration and socialisation among employees.
However, employees often find open-plan offices distracting, and because they are not able to concentrate on their work, they tend to communicate and collaborate less frequently with their colleagues.
Moreover, there is often little privacy in open-plan offices. The shared desks and spaces usually mean overhearing phone calls or catching your colleagues engaging in online shopping.
Further, studies have shown that employees in open-plan offices take nearly two-thirds more sick leave and report higher levels of unhappiness and stress, and lower levels of productivity.
Yet companies continue to build open-plan offices because they require less space and are thus more cost-effective. To save more on office space, some companies even introduce hot-desking, where employees either share a desk with others or are not assigned a permanent desk and must find one when needed.
Needless to say, hot-desking exacerbates the lack of privacy and concentration for employees. Desk shortages, difficulty finding colleagues, and wasted time create tensions among employees, and severely impact employee well-being and productivity.
Given that office space is typically costly for companies, remote working may alleviate the situation since fewer desks are needed for employees.
As one of the most densely populated countries in the world, Singapore could also benefit from more remote working as not all employees will need to commute to work.
CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION REQUIRE CRITICAL THINKING AND FOCUS
It is widely believed that collaboration fosters creativity and innovation, enabling organisations to stay ahead of the curve. But the same can be said about focus and deep cognitive skills.
First, being able to concentrate on tasks without interruption or distraction lays the foundation for any type of work to occur.
Job tasks such as processing and synthesising information, analysing data, or even responding to e-mails all require some level of concentration.
Second, employees need creative thinking skills to produce innovative work. To foster creative thinking skills, critical thinking is just as important as collaboration.
When these cognitive processes are disrupted due to distractions in the workplace, collaboration alone will not produce creativity or innovation.
DEMAND FOR REMOTE WORKING WILL CONTINUE TO RISE
Admittedly, remote working is not for everyone.
Employees who thrive on feedback and encouragement struggle to work from home, as they require regular social interaction and connection with their supervisors and colleagues.
Many employees also struggle to “switch off” these days. Remote working is known to aggravate this issue as it erodes the boundaries between work and life.
Organisations have also found it hard to manage large groups of employees taking on remote working, as studies have shown a decrease in productivity and firm performance due to bad planning and inefficient work re-allocation.
But at the very least, workplaces should be designed to support employees’ well-being and productivity. Also, each employee’s work and non-work needs are a lot more complex these days. Catering to employees’ needs requires a more nuanced approach.
Although it may be hard to monitor employees when they work from home, making employees work in the office throughout the week may not be any more beneficial.
At the end of the day, employees are generally motivated when they feel connected to their workplace and are afforded the same opportunities as their colleagues.
So this demand for remote working will continue to increase, and companies must find a way to navigate its costs and benefits.
Carys Chan is Lecturer/Assistant Professor at RMIT University's School of Management.