As vaccination rates rise and employers start to think about resuming regular working routines, many firms are considering adopting a hybrid policy — where workers will divide their time between time in the office and time spent working at home.
Tempting as it may sound to those who love working in their sweatpants and the freedom from a hassle-filled commute, others warn there could be negative career consequences.
“People who use flexible work practices such as telecommuting or working from home can be seen as less devoted to their career, and putting family and personal life first,” said Kimberly Eddleston, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University in Boston and co-author of a study that examined the relationship between remote work and career success, as measured by promotions and salary increases.
The study, which was released just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, looked at a large American technology company that had staff working both remotely and on-site. Data was analyzed over a six-year period, and although the authors didn’t see a big difference in the number of promotions between those who worked at the office versus those who “telecommuted,” they found the more often someone worked from home, the less likely they were to see pay increases.
“We found a real penalty in terms of particularly salary growth, but also even promotions,” Eddleston said of those who chose to operate from their home offices several days per week.
Peer pressure to return to the office?
A career “penalty” would clearly be unwelcome for those who aim to continue to avoid a full-time return to the office. According to Statistics Canada, a full 80 per cent of participants in a survey done in April said they would like to spend at least half of their working hours at home after the pandemic ends.
Carlos Sayao has been working from home for the past 15 months and plans to take up his employer’s offer of a hybrid work week. He said he’s not afraid the choice will hurt his career in any way.
“I don’t feel any peer pressure at all to come into the office just for the sake of coming in,” said the 38-year-old lawyer with the Toronto firm Tyr LLP.
He and his partner have even moved to a larger home with more room for them to work. The pandemic, Sayao said, has shown just how effective employees can be outside the office.
“I think the stigma has certainly decreased significantly,” he said. “In today’s day and age, I don’t think there should be barriers to working from home just for the sake of face time at the office.”
The problem with hybrid
Jon Love disagrees. The CEO of Toronto-based KingSett Capital has a vested interest in a full-time return to the workplace; he’s in the commercial real estate business. But he said that’s not why he believes the vast majority of employees will ultimately return to the office.
“It’s very difficult to have a hybrid environment in my experience,” said Love, 66. “Ultimately, I think that business is a team sport and it’s difficult to play with only part of the team.”
He’s among those who say the best forms of collaboration happen in person, and that video calls are a second-rate replacement. Love described a situation where eight people have gathered in person while four others are on a large screen, joining the meeting via Zoom.
“The problem is the eight people talk to each other, and it’s like the four people are at the kids’ table. It just doesn’t work. No one wants to be at the kids’ table — and you never hear what the kids are saying anyway.”
Love said the remote work experiment forced by the pandemic has been successful, but as vaccination rates climb, he expects most companies will eventually want their employees back at their desks. He points to New York, London and Sydney, Australia as business centres where people are already returning en masse to the office, and said Canada will likely follow suit, once it’s declared safe to do so.
“Most employers will want their people back,” he said.
And he also sees that those who opt to remain close to the comforts of home could pay a price in terms of their career. “There’s the old saying — 90 per cent of success is showing up.”
But is that saying now obsolete? Jim Bunting thinks so.
“Today it would have to be modified to ’90 per cent of success is putting in the work’,” said Bunting, who is the founder of the law firm where Carlos Sayao works. “It shouldn’t matter if that work is completed in or outside the office.”
Bunting said he was a big believer in the ability to work anywhere, even prior to the pandemic, due to the international nature of his work. He said the hybrid model works particularly well for the legal industry, and insists his employees won’t face any penalty for choosing to spend time at their home-based workstation.
“It is incumbent on our leadership team to be thoughtful and fair when we evaluate performance and make sure that we stamp out older views or biases that link success to face time,” he said.
There is evidence the pandemic has changed attitudes to some extent. LinkedIn ranks Canadian companies annually in terms of how well professionals are able to advance their careers, and it says a majority of this year’s top 25 firms “planned to change their permanent policies to allow for more remote and flexible work after the pandemic — if they haven’t done so already.”
Kimberly Eddleston, co-author of the study that examined the relationship between frequency of working from home with levels of career success, has some suggestions for people who want the best of both worlds.
For starters, she said that it’s important to stay in close touch with supervisors. “You need to communicate and really let them know that you’re more productive at home and you’re getting things done.”
She points out “the norms” of the workplace are key. “If everyone in your work unit is coming back to the workplace, that is something to consider,” she said. “Maybe you should come in more.” On the flip side of that, if everyone is working from home three days a week, you’re likely safe to do the same.
Her study also concluded that those who worked from home only occasionally — roughly once a week — had the same career success as those who didn’t telecommute at all. “So that’s something that all of us can hopefully think about and adapt to,” she said.