Working from home has become a reality that businesses and their staff have had to quickly adjust to, and many organisations are now questioning the need to ever return to the paradigm of mass centralised offices. But Richard Liew says it may not be the holy grail of productivity, happiness and work-life balance for everyone.

When we moved house just before COVID-19 lockdown my commute time to work tripled. Instead of the usual nine steps from our bedroom to my desk, it became 27 steps.

When I tell people this story I generally get either a chuckle from those who also work from home, or the understandably sarcastic response of, “Oh poor you…!” from those who don’t.

Unless critical to my role, I personally couldn’t think of any bigger time and productivity killer than having to go into an office each day and just this morning KiwiSaver provider AMP announced it is joining the ranks of a growing number of Kiwi businesses ditching their offices.

But while there are certainly many benefits that come with the freedom of working from home, I think staff and management considering making the change permanent, need to be aware that it’s not all “rainbows and unicorns” and it’s certainly not for everyone.

Three brutal truths about working from home

Yes you’ve heard it all before… Time saved commuting means more time for being productive or enjoying life outside work. Money saved on gas, parking, car wear and tear and public transport can be put to better use. Less people on the roads reduces traffic congestion and green house gas emissions. The benefits are plentiful and never before has working from home been so easy.

But before you rush to introduce teleworking, abandon the company office or quit your job to build a home based business, here are three brutal truths about working from home.

(These are based on over ten years running businesses with team members working from home in New Zealand, overseas, or when and wherever else they want.)

Truth #1: Many people lack the self discipline required to work from home.

One of the best things about working from home is the freedom that comes with it. With no one looking over your shoulder you get to choose what you work on, when you want to work, even if you’re going to do any work at all.

But here’s the thing – the work ain’t going to do itself. Someone is going to have to do it, and that someone is you.

about working from homeIf you don’t have the laser focus and drive to get what needs to be done done, without being constantly prompted, reminded and cajoled by someone else, your productivity is going to be no better than if you were in an office with all the usual noise and distractions.

It’s too easy to have a sleep in. It’s too easy to walk the dog or hit the park on a beautiful day. It’s too easy to finish just one more episode of your favourite Netflix cliffhanger.

It’s too easy to procrastinate because the kitchen needs cleaning, the washing needs doing, or the kids are home from school and need playing with.

If you don’t have the self discipline to block out distractions and do what needs to be done, even when you don’t feel like it, working from home is probably not for you.

Truth #2: It can be lonely.

Ever dream about telling your boss to just stick it? Whether you’re building your own business from home, or now just boss of your own workday at home, I can tell you that many people find themselves wondering just what the hell they’ve done when they realise that their new boss (the one in the mirror) is even more of a clueless tyrant than their old one.

And those workmates you find so tedious…?

After a month or six of having the same fruitless conversations with yourself over and over, you’ll be hanging out for Julianne (“the mouth breather”), Gary (“the B.O. guy”) and Matt (“the sleaze”) to waltz in the front door, schedule another pointless team meeting (aka blame session) and catch you up on all the juicy office gossip.

Seriously though, for the extroverts out there, this isolation can be a real drawback and have a serious negative impact on your productivity. Not only do you lose the sense of camaraderie that is often present in a team/office environment (even if only subconsciously), but you miss out on the benefits of the buzz, energy and input that great workplaces can emit.

In an office environment there is also a lot of information that gets shared by osmosis. It’s much easier for people to be on the same page about where the business is at, key areas of focus, the general mood and consensus (or not) of team members. When building and managing remote teams you have to work much harder to keep up the communication, inspiration and team culture.

Problems once easily solved by a quick chat at the water cooler can turn into showstoppers if staff have to wait until next week’s Work In Progress meeting, or can’t quickly connect with someone to resolve them. And if you’re feeling low or lacking inspiration, it’s you that has to give yourself a pep talk and find the motivation because there is no one else to do it for you.

Even introverts need human interaction from time to time, even if it’s just to tell someone to shut the hell up!

Personally, as someone in the middle of the extroversion-introversion scale I need peace and quiet to operate at my best. Having people around when I’m trying to work is a real productivity killer for me so I prefer to work by myself during the day, and get my human fix through my sporting and social activities after work.

If you can’t handle long and potentially stressful periods of time by yourself, working from home is probably not for you.

Truth #3: There is no escape.

Ironically, in their search for the mythical work/life balance, what many people forget is that by bringing your work into your home, you are actually allowing your work to intrude further into your life.

I’ve met numerous people, both entrepreneurs and employees, who have only realised after the fact, that “working at home” is actually just another way of saying “living at work.” (“Noooooo…!”)

What this means is that if you have had a stressful day, are holding bad “work energy”, or are just ready for a change of scenery after a frantic week, you can’t just head home and leave your office and worries in the dust. Well, you can, but you’ll be returning right back if that’s where you intend to sleep for the night…

Every time you look at your laptop, or eat at the table you sit at for hours every day, you will be reminded that you are at work. Everytime you walk past your office door, or see your work materials, stock or equipment, you will be reminded that you are at work. There is no quicker way to come to hate something you used to love, than not being able to get away from it when you want to.

Not only that, but you have to be able to set clear boundaries for yourself so that you don’t find yourself working at all hours of the day, eating into the precious personal life you wanted more of in the first place. It’s so easy to just fire off a quick quote after dinner, or sort your filing on the weekend, or write a quick blog while the kids are in the bath – all perfectly justifiable and logical in the name of “commitment” of course.

Because you can’t distance yourself from your work physically, you have to be very good at distancing yourself from your work mentally and emotionally.

If you can’t do this and if you are anything less than completely in love with your work, working from home is probably not for you.

One size does not fit all

While there are certainly many great benefits to working from home, don’t be too quick to believe that it’s the only way forward, or beat yourself up because it just really doesn’t appeal to you. We are all different and what may be right for some, may not necessarily be right for everyone.

Richard Liew is founder and editor at NZ Entrepreneur and the Startup NZ Entrepreneurs Programme

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