The ‘Home Office’ Does Not Exist

Don’t try to replicate your workplace environment at home

Illustration: Justin Cassano

One of the many astonishing things about 2020 has been the pace of workplace change. The percentage of people who work from home jumped from 31% to 62% in one month. As a result, office workers realized that much of our work can be decoupled from location.

In a crisis, people cling to what they can. Many organizations tried to replicate the office environment. Any given meeting was just converted to an equivalent Zoom call. People have told me their managers were checking in on Slack or video chats around 9 a.m. — presumably to hold people accountable for keeping regular business hours. Numerous articles and experts suggested wearing shoes because bare feet might lead to a “relaxed mindset.” (No, not a relaxed mindset!)

This is a missed opportunity. When you work from home, you don’t have to replicate the office environment. In fact, you shouldn’t. Instead, you should consciously structure your workweek according to the benefits of each location.

While offices allow for easier socializing, they can also be distracting places. A recent survey found that when people absolutely had to get stuff done, only 8% preferred their workplaces during business hours. Another 8% said they preferred their workplaces outside of business hours — presumably when no colleagues were stopping by to chat about why the cheese had disappeared from the cafeteria salad bar. Almost half (49%) chose a home office for buckling down.

There’s also the less-talked-about reality of physical distraction. People are more likely to dress up for the office than a home office. But this means that many offices maintain a summer temperature that’s comfortable for men in suits and freezing for women in dresses and dress shoes that don’t allow for socks. It’s hard to do your best work when your fingers are turning blue.

Then there are the standard business hours, which really don’t work equally well for everyone. Plenty of people do their best work first thing in the morning, but forcing the 9% (or so) of biological night owls to check in by 9 a.m. makes little sense if there’s nothing that has to happen at that time; indeed, it might actually be bad for their health.

When life returns to “normal,” few workplaces will stay fully remote. The most likely model will be a hybrid, with many people working at the office two or three days per week and at home two or three days per week. With this hybrid, the best option will be for teams to realize the upsides of both locations.

Work-from-home days can be structured for flexibility. Collaborating teams can set core hours (say, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and then let people work around those hours according to their work styles and family situations. Work-from-home days can center around individual, focused work, and in-office days can be more social — it’s easier to be relaxed about that salad bar conversation when you know you have time to get your work done. When they’re in the office, maybe people can take longer lunches and build the sort of trust that allows people to work well together even when they don’t see each other as much.

And above all, work-from-home days can absolutely allow for comfort and a “relaxed mindset.” I haven’t worn shoes in my home office in years. I can set the temperature to my happy place and wear whatever makes me feel best. People stay engaged when they’re making progress on challenging, meaningful work. Footwear (or a lack of it) has nothing to do with that. A home office doesn’t have to replicate a traditional office — that’s why it works so well.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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