Sorry, but Working From Home Is Overrated
Home-cooked lunches and no commuting while we deal with coronavirus can’t compensate for what’s lost in creativity.
I’ve been researching the (pros and cons of remote work) for my upcoming book about human survival in the age of artificial intelligence and automation. And I’ve now come to a conclusion: Most people should work in an office, or near other people, and avoid solitary work-from-home arrangements whenever possible.
損得, プラス面とマイナス面, 賛否（両論）
the pros and cons of (doing) something
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Don’t get me wrong: Working from home is a good option for new parents, people with disabilities and others who aren’t well served by a traditional office setup. I don’t think we should ignore health guidelines and force people to work in an office during a pandemic. And I’m sympathetic to the millions of teachers, restaurant workers and other professionals for whom working from home has never been a viable option.
Fans of remote work often cite studies showing that people who work from home are more productive, like a 2014 study led by the Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom. The study examined remote workers at a Chinese travel agency and found that they were 13 percent more efficient than their office-based peers.
But research also shows that what remote workers gain in productivity, they often miss in harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking. Studies have found that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators, and that (team cohesion) suffers in remote work arrangements.
a sense of community and social cohesion
Historically, sport has been a cohesive force in international relations.
Working in isolation can be lonely, which explains the popularity of co-working spaces like WeWork and The Wing. Even in Silicon Valley, where the tools that allow for remote work are being built, many companies are strict about requiring their workers to come into the office.
Steve Jobs, for one, was a famous opponent of remote work, believing that Apple employees’ best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of an email inbox.
“Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions,” Mr. Jobs said. “You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
I’ll grant that office work has its downsides, even in healthy times. Commuting has been shown to make us less happy, and the open-plan office, a truly cursed workplace design trend that emphasizes airy spaces with rows of desks and little privacy, has made distraction-free focus nearly impossible.
But being near other people also allows us to express our most human qualities, like empathy and collaboration. Those are the skills that can’t be automated. And they’re what produces the kind of meaningful interpersonal contact we miss out on when we’re stuck at home.
“There’s an element of social interaction that’s really important,” said Laszlo Bock, the chief executive of Humu, a Silicon Valley human resources start-up.
Mr. Bock, who was previously Google’s top human resources officer, said that for most people, balancing office work with remote work is ideal. His company’s research has found that the ideal amount of work-from-home time is one and a half days per week — enough to participate in office culture, with some time reserved for deep, focused work.
“The reason tech companies have micro-kitchens and free snacks is not because they think people are going to starve between 9 a.m. and noon,” he said. “It’s because that’s where you get those moments of serendipity.”
In recent years, some companies with sizable remote workforces have experimented with ways to create office culture over a distance.
Automattic, Mr. Mullenweg’s all-remote company, holds an annual weeklong staff retreat called the “grand meetup,” at which workers gather in the same place to socialize and work on group projects. At GitLab, an open-source collaboration platform, remote workers are encouraged to schedule “virtual coffee breaks” — purely social video conferences — with colleagues they don’t know well.
If the coronavirus continues preventing people from going to the office, more companies may need to try tactics like these to help keep their workers happy and connected.
“It’s a very personal decision that works for some and doesn’t work for others,” said Julia Austin, a former tech executive and professor at Harvard Business School. “Some people are more productive and happy and find other ways to get social contact if they work from home. And some people aren’t happy working alone.”
As a white-collar millennial, I’m supposed to be cheering on the remote work revolution. But I’ve realized that I can’t be my best, most human self in sweatpants, pretending to pay attention on video conferences between trips to the fridge.
I’ll stay home as long as my bosses and the health authorities advise. But honestly, I can’t wait to go back to work.