Working life

Some thoughts on Work From Home vs Office

We’re now two years into the pandemic. For many Melbourne people, the start was marked by the sudden cancellation of the March 2020 Formula 1 Grand Prix, followed just over a week later by the early start of school holidays and the shift to Work From Home for most white-collar workers – which for many has kept going ever since.

At first I was foolish enough to think it wouldn’t last long. Perhaps a couple of months. And then we’d all return to how it was before.

Six months to a year in, and a common view was that eventual normality would be three days in the office, two at home.

But now we’re two years in, and even leaving aside ongoing COVID-19 cases and health concerns, I think expectations have changed.

While some are sticking to the three days idea, others are asking: why return regularly at all?

It depends on your perspective of course. For technical people who spend most of their day on a computer, and have a quiet space at home to work, they might prefer to keep working from home.

For others with noisy homes, or whose day is mostly about working with others, they might prefer to go into the office more.

I found this very perceptive: people who are often in some types of jobs are more likely to be pushing to go back in.

For myself I’m somewhat conflicted.

I love the City when it’s busy. And I know that a lot of what makes public transport work (especially in Australian cities) is large numbers of city commuters.

But… I’m not an extrovert. I work in a technical role. I have a quiet space to work at home.

If being in the office means a cramped desk in an open plan, noisy, busy, distracting space, why would I want to go back there?

Zoom remote meetings took some time to get used to, but there are actually some key advantages.

  • You have access to your computer – if an answer isn’t to hand, you can easily look it up during the meeting. (In theory this can happen in-person, but it rarely seemed to occur in meetings I attended)
  • If only part of the meeting is relevant to you, you can get on with other work while you listen in.
  • Using Zoom and some other tools, meetings can easily be recorded, to provide a full record of what went on. This includes Knowledge Transfer sessions where the amount and accuracy of information recorded can be far better than anybody’s notes.
Tinkoff Bank office (by Tinkoff Bank, via Wikimedia)
Tinkoff Bank Office – by Tinkoff Bank, via Wikimedia

Others of course will have different views.

Younger office workers and new employees may benefit a lot more from being in an environment where they can learn from others, and informally network with colleagues.

Last month I tried a totally-unscientific Twitter poll to see what others thought.

Without knowing who precisely responded, the management/HR expectations of 3+ days per week in the office may be way out of whack with the sentiment of many office workers.

So broadly, 45% are okay with 3-5 days per week in the office, but around 55% want fewer or none.

I hope most workplaces will have a conversation with their employees about what people want, rather than dictating the view from a few managers.

If they are too demanding, they may find their people look elsewhere.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

11 replies on “Some thoughts on Work From Home vs Office”

I’m in IT support and in the pandemic I’ve been setting up laptops and things for people which can pretty much only easily be done from the office, so even in the most prolonged lockdowns I was in the office… many times completely alone. It was incredibly difficult at times. I did work from home on occasion but the thing I find with doing that is that you keep working after 5pm (or whatever your finish time should be). The thing I like most about going in is that when I leave, the day is done, and I don’t need to think about it until tomorrow.

In the various returns to office (there were several… I lost count) the pattern is always the same: hardly anyone comes in on Monday. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are the busiest. You get more on Friday than Monday, but it’s quieter than the middle three days of the week. That’s how I see it continuing. Some people have never been in since March 2020, I have colleagues I have never met in real life.

My company has gone full hybrid: if your role doesn’t require it, you don’t need to come in, unless you choose to. Personally I think this is more out of fear of losing good people. People have been resigning in droves… the great resignation is very real… in fact I myself am seriously thinking about my future at this point in time. The last two years have flown by way to fast and the prospect of continuing like this into the future… I can’t do this for much longer. I am fortunate that I am in a position where I can afford to do that but I really feel for people who are trapped with no way out.

Personally I am going back up to 4 days in the office – small apartment + I like to ride in to work at least twice a week for health reasons, makes this an easy decision. I’m spending Fridays WFH pandemic style and it seems to be a nice way to end the week. I am fortunate the company I work for is moderate in size with management that recognise the improvements increased flexibility can have, and they’ve decided to allow employees to choose whether to hot desk (if you come in less frequently) or have a fixed desk (if you are in most of the time). Its great, we’ve worked well as a team throughout the pandemic so they’ve recognised not everyone needs to be in all the time.

While I miss being able to catch up with people face to face, I think broadly the benefits of people travelling less (ergo reducing fossil fuel usage) and the activation WFH brings to the suburbs is overall a big positive. Also means I can chuck my headphones on at work without feeling like im ignoring people :)

My org has gone fully flexible and have committed to allowing employees to choose what works best for them, from 5 days WFH to 5 days in the office if preferred.

However an important consideration is for those with younger school age kids or other commitments that can take up time during traditional business hours. For me, I’ve found that being able to do kinder pick-ups regularly instead of leaving it to grandparents or paying for extra childcare has been extremely beneficial, both financially and in terms of the family dynamic and relationship with my child. I won’t be going back to the office on a regular basis at all. My team has been geographically dispersed anyway prior to the pandemic (both Australia and International), so we’re all accustomed to remotely connecting.

If a job can be done full-time WFH, then as staff change, won’t employers be tempted to employ replacements overseas (presumably in low wage countries)?

Never having worked in office, my opinion may be seen as either ignorant or impartial. Generally, I think younger people need to be in an office. What they can learn from fellow workers in an office environment is invaluable. Well established and respected workers, allow them to work from home as they wish. Allowances for those for young families could be made and of course even some young people don’t need the office connections to do their job well, and it follows that some experienced people might really like to work in an office.

I am a firm believer in leave your work at the office and it does seem to be a problem that some people seem to be working more hours when working at home. But from my observations at the height of lockdown, people adjusted their working hours to suit themselves. Have a nice long lunch including a beach walk and make up the time later in the day.

@gxh, there’s always that risk, though I think the reverse is also true – some companies who have off-shored some their work haven’t found it’s gone as smoothly as hoped. There are sometimes cultural issues, and a loss of control.

There’s also still value in being able to get someone into the office occasionally, but quickly (eg same day or next day).

@Andrew, I think an important element to WFH is switching off at the end of the day. It’s something that perhaps some people haven’t really figured out – perhaps if WFH is permanent, employers should offer training on it.

I’ve really enjoyed WFH. Pre-pandemic i was quite wedded to being in the office 5 days a week, and there was also an attitude that if you did WFH you were not really working. I am glad my workplace is talking about return to office in a hybrid manner, and leaving it up to teams to decide what works best for them. i have this week started one day in office four from home. I would feel that 2 days in office and 3 at home would be suitable for me, but would be prepared to do up to 3 days in office if it was absolutely required.

I don’t miss my commute everyday, which with bus and train could be a 2 hour door to door journey. But i do miss the reading time that gave me. I appreciate those days when additional work hours are required as I can work later, and not have to deal with a late trip home.

One thing I’ve noticed is the number of people who have returned to the office having Teams meetings with people still WFH, but also with people on site as well. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium when you are integrating different modes of working. Although I’ll probably end up as a 40% in the office/ 60% from home person, electronic meetings are way more inclusive when you have people spread across multiple sites, and you don’t have to fumble with jumpy VC equipment which used to take at least 5 mins of your meeting time to set up…
Resource/seat-booking systems are going to be quite the key in the future

@gxh: I think at least with call centres, some companies including Telstra are bringing them back into Australia. Turns out, lack of good provisions in remote working (and internet outside of big cities) are still a thing in India/Phillipines/Fiji etc. And as Daniel said, there’s also the problem with communication and language skills (and that’s before getting into how Australians use slang) hampering communication with both management and client, cultural differences, and difficulties in actual training and oversight (including awareness of the producs/services provided and their issues), which would result in the proverbial right hand not talking to the left one. At least with Australian-based ones, they’d be less communication issues, and management oversight would be easier.

Our workplace (an office building on Bourke St) has mandated 3 days (more if you want). To be honest as much as WFH is nice for obvious reasons I think it does rob new starters and younger people of building networks and learning. I think WFH for 5 days has leveraged an existing network built up by being in the office pre-pandemic but this has weakened through natural employee turnover over the last two years (this company has quite low turnover as well). As such I’m happy to do at least 3 days for the greater good of the workplace.

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