Monday, February 21, 2022

The Perils of Working at Home

Now that we all know what WFH means-- that is, it means work from home-- we are curious, to say the least, to see whether it is good or bad for workers, to say nothing of companies.

Indications are that working from home is not a good thing. Work, such as it is, involves being a member of a team, belonging to an organization. And this requires presence. It especially requires a myriad of everyday interactions that promote mental stability and good functioning.

The Wall Street Journal has been reporting on the phenomenon, and it has done a good job of it.

A recent report begins with the simple fact that many members of Generation Z-- those born after 1997, have never worked in an office. One adds that this generation also suffers from the worst social skills.

A growing cohort of young employees have never worked from an office. They graduated during the pandemic or landed jobs just as offices began to shut down. And many of them—especially Generation Z—imagine they may never work in an office, as remote work becomes the default for many businesses.

Naturally, Gen Zers think that they are happy working from home. And  yet, many of them report feeling depressed and anxious, from the simple fact of being disconnected. The Journal lists what they are losing by working from home:

In general, they are OK with that: Many of them like being remote and want to be able to work that way. But there are drawbacks. Surveys show that young remote workers also feel unmoored and anxious. And researchers argue that the young workers may harm their personal and professional lives in the future by missing office work and the traditional experiences that prior generations took for granted: learning from older colleagues, schmoozing with bosses, settling into the rhythms of an office workday—or even just being face to face with others. It is new territory, and the experience is likely to shape these workers in lasting ways.

Think about it, face to face contact. Looking someone in the eye, communicating via gestures and facial expressions-- these are essential to making real connections. You cannot do it on line and you certainly cannot do it via text message or email or any other form of writing. 

So, Gen Z seems to be suffering psychological damage for their addiction to screens. The problem is disconnection and loneliness. We are not dealing with the kind of loneliness that can be cured by falling in love. We are dealing with the loneliness that befalls those who feel like they do not belong to any constituted social group.

Working from home can make anyone lonely and anxious, but experts say these effects are more pronounced for Gen Zers—who have spent a lot of time on screens from the start. “This is the cohort with the least amount of person-to-person interaction while growing up,” says Dr. Nishizaki, adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles. “There is a link there between depression and anxiety and how we constantly compare ourselves to other people, and then we are only seeing our best selves online and on social media.”

Compounding the problem, young adulthood, from ages 18 to 29, is a particularly lonely time of life for many, with or without screens, says Jeffrey Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University.

It is “the time when people spend the most time alone until you get to your 70s,” says Dr. Arnett. “You may not have a romantic partner, you may not see your parents so much anymore because you probably don’t live at home, and you change residences so much that that complicates having stable friendships.”

Importantly, when you interact with your office mates on a daily basis you form connections. Not because you have been sharing intimacies-- they have no place in the workplace-- but because you each become familiar presences:

Working in an office, Dr. Arnett says, allows relationships with colleagues, from friendships to mentorships, to form more naturally.

That means young remote workers may miss out not only on professional relationships but also on friends and potential romantic partners, says Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and chief executive of the Society for Human Resource Management.

“There’s something that happens when a group of us, say, ‘Hey, after work on Friday, we’re all going to X bar,’ and you go with a group, and there’s that dynamic,” he says.

And, of course, we want to know whether working from home has a cost in terms of efficiency and effectiveness:

The potential problems aren’t just personal ones, of course. Working remotely presents Gen Z with significant challenges on the job.

Young workers often express concerns about the ability to build a professional network, says Mr. Taylor. This is a problem for any remote worker—but a bigger one for younger people who haven’t established themselves professionally.

“One day, one of their classmates is going to be the CEO of something or the board member of some company, and you won’t have that real authentic relationship with him or her,” says Mr. Taylor.

Remote work may also lead to career crises. Because young millennial and Gen Z workers generally have less experience and less power at work than other age groups, they often worry about whether they are on the right track. They are more likely to be affected by feeling out of the loop, say Drs. Nishizaki and DellaNeve.

Without consistent feedback, they can more easily start to wonder things like, “ ‘Is my boss mad at me? Am I doing OK?’ ” says Dr. Nishizaki. They are even more vulnerable to impostor syndrome, a psychological phenomenon that makes people doubt their hard-won success or worry about being exposed as a fraud.

One understands that Gen Z is especially apt to suffer from imposter syndrome. After all, the current mania for diversity, inclusion and equity suggests that people are being hired for their genetic makeup, not for their skills and competence. This produces the assumption that certain members of certain groups have not been hired for merit.

And that is not all:

The concern young workers share about being forgotten isn’t unfounded, says Mr. Taylor of the Society for Human Resource Management. The organization conducted a survey in 2021 that revealed 42% of supervisors say they sometimes forget about remote workers when assigning tasks.

“If I’m the supervisor and I have a really juicy assignment, I give it to the person who I just passed in the hallway, because this concept of out of sight, out of mind applies in human nature,” says Mr. Taylor. “So you are missing out on some key opportunities to showcase your talent.”

Remote workers also may be more vulnerable to misunderstandings and bad feelings at work, in part because they are not able to form strong relationships or to build on existing relationships with people they have met. “In the absence of those relationships and in the absence of good quality communication, I think there’s a greater tendency for there to be mistrust, and it’s very hard to kind of work through those issues over a messaging platform or even over a telephone call,” says psychiatrist Grant Brenner, who coaches clients on subjects including the workplace.

Presence brings benefits, for the individual and for the group. When it is absent, workers feel less loyalty to their company. This makes them more likely to want to look for other jobs.

Without a sense of connection and belonging, they are less likely to feel attached to their employers, she says. “They are going to be quick to want to leave if they don’t feel fully connected and if they don’t like the culture they see.” More than half of Americans planned to look for a new job within the year, according to a Bankrate survey of more than 2,000 workers in July 2021. Among those surveyed, twice as many Gen Z workers as baby boomers and Gen X workers said they were likely to start the search.

All told, working from home seems to be a losing proposition, for everyone involved.


370H55V said...

Sorry, but I don't buy it:

"A recent report begins with the simple fact that many members of Generation Z-- those born after 1997, have never worked in an office. One adds that this generation also suffers from the worst social skills."

Well, could it also be possible that the reverse is true? That if you have poor social skills, it would be better for all concerned that you not be in an office environment? And when you aren't, your performance can be measured more objectively without reference to office politics.

"That means young remote workers may miss out not only on professional relationships but also on friends and potential romantic partners, says Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and chief executive of the Society for Human Resource Management."

“There’s something that happens when a group of us, say, ‘Hey, after work on Friday, we’re all going to X bar,’ and you go with a group, and there’s that dynamic,” he says.

And what happens if you're not among the select invited to go to X bar? If you work at home, then you don't have to worry about being a pariah in that sense. As for "friends and romantic partners", don't get me started about the minefield and the risk of a sexual harassment charge if you're not the right guy (and it almost always is a guy).

I'm retired now, but I had a very checkered career, the first half of which was marked by several job changes (some voluntary, others not) and at least one sustained period of unemployment--none of which involved work at home. Once I finally got a job of significant duration, I found that even if you stay in the same place, the world around you keeps changing. Friends from work disappeared, and new relationships were but temporary.

For those who aren't on the fast track, those regarded as social pariahs and possibly on the autism spectrum, work at home is a blessing. Not only do such individuals not have to deal with ridicule behind their backs, but they can also live anywhere they want--including remote locations where they won't have to have much human contact at all if they don't want it.

Anonymous said...

I have worked in a few offices, and underground, baby-sitting 33 missiles, for 8 years, in two states.

Walt said...

Yeah, well, most people aren’t “on the autism spectrum” and most people who are on it likely aren’t suited for most office work anyway. Meanwhile, back in reality, working from home likely works best, from every perspective (worker, company and end product) for people who already have a lot of experience working in an office and especially in that same office. It depends, of course, on the kind of work. But young people who lack social/interpersonal knowhow, had damn better learn some or their future will be as gloomy and isolated as their present. And though I agree with all the points the writer makes, I’d add one more. Young people used to working on their own are more likely to take criticism badly and to believe they’ve aced every assignment. I’d already heard stories about that, even before the lockdown.

the Egyptian said...

"or even just being face to face with others"

works well with face diapers, don't it? The mouth is one of the most expressive parts of the face, even more than the eyes, talk about losing out on personal contact, the repercussions will be enormous. Just saying.

TheRandomTexan said...

Horses for courses. My department gives me great autonomy in structuring and presenting undergraduate courses in a variety of "modalities" (online, hybrid, or Old School lectures). I'm the opposite of depressed, since I've reduced my weekly commuting by 60%.

Karen Myers said...

There's no question that commuting sucks. Hard.

That said, I spent my long career mentoring both colleagues and then employees as part of my company building & management responsibilities, and one of my favorite parts, too. I can't imagine that being successful for people I never see interacting with others in the work environment. Much of my employee-growth work originated in seeing, often accidentally, what they struggled with, what problems they had with others, and so forth, which in a virtual environment would never have come to my attention. Never underestimate the worth of drop-by help and ad hoc immediate suggestions.

It is tremendously fruitful to be thrown in with other people at various stages in their careers. The young & inexperienced can observe what works and what doesn't, see options demonstrated by others that they had never considered, and just generally benefit. The experienced can usefully construct teams that both accomplish necessary tasks and benefit the team members, making them more valuable over time.

For technical teams, especially long-standing ones, where there is little social change... sure, they can be fruitful in a virtual environment. But that's not how most careers start and advance, or how most people learn over time. Maybe you can support what you were hired for now --- but how will you ever grow? It's not a matter of what you're "qualified for" now; it's what you can become that you should invest in.

markedup2 said...

I could very well be in denial, but I like working from home. Even before the current bruhaha, most of my colleagues were in other time-zones. Software work has been distributing for decades, now. There is still an office at $CURRENT_JOB, but only about four people from the "big office, let's go out and do things" days remained before I stopped going in - and I only lived two miles away. Most of the people I work with are in Eastern Europe.

Now, I live 500 miles from "my" Denver office and I'm not even sure if I still have a desk. I do still have a computer I RDP into every day, but I have no idea where it is physically located; it might be in the Chicago data center.

I liked socializing with co-workers, but that ended long before COVID.

It won't be that long until most office workers are useless, anyway. They mostly type things into computers and that is being relentlessly outsourced to customers. For example, we used to have a payroll department; now it's one person and everyone self-manages their own data via various portals (payroll, retirement plans, HSA deductions, expense reports, etc...). My last visit to a DMV (very efficient, btw) could have been done entirely online with the license mailed to me. I bought the house in $NEW_STATE without meeting anyone except my agent in-person until the closing.

Office workers primarily shuffle paper. With less paper, there is less need for an office to store it all in. We're a LONG way from paperless and system-to-system integration (really, you need to see a utility bill for me to get a driver's license? How hard is it to scan one, change the data to match what I need, then print it and pretend it's mine? I can do that and I'm terrible with graphics editing), but we're moving inexorably in that direction.

There are plenty of online ways to build reputation in the software world (github, StackOverflow, a plethora of per-product Q&A forums). One can build a portfolio, completely outside of one's job, that is very visible to future employers - it's something to do while not hanging out with coworkers in a bar.

Am I lonely? Perhaps a bit. If and when it starts to bother me, I'll go out and meet more people; it's not as if there is a shortage of groups to join.

Am I anxious? Definitely. But it has more to do with governments putting their citizens under illegal house arrest and no one caring, freezing bank accounts with 60% approval ratings, running up massive deficits creating inflation while spouting nonsense monetary theory, and horrible energy infrastructure decisions than it does with me not chatting with coworkers.

markedup2 said...

P.S. Beside, I have blogs on which I can write overly long comments, pretending that y'all care what I think!

David Foster said...

For those who are on (shudder) twitter...Paul Graham, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist, has several remote-work related items on his feed. He suggests that:

"In the most effective organizations, working from home lets people be more productive. In the least effective, it's a synonym for not working. So the shift away from the office will magnify the spread between the most and least effective organizations."

Also he retweets a guy who says:

"Creative work is inherently unequal. This is very visible in the income distributions of singers and movie stars, but less visible in white-collar professions"...and provides some reasons for that view.

Jay Dee said...

While the work is different the experience is not. Consider the experience of the early settlers on the Western Plains of the United States. Often it was a husband & wife bulding their first homes, plowing and planting fields, harvesting. It took a peculiar personality to endure such hardships and many found they were unable to do so.