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The work from home myth

The work from home myth
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Many big brands are telling their employees to stay at home. Just recently, Google announced that it has has extended its corporate work-from-home model through the summer of 2021, as has Uber. Twitter, Facebook, Square, Slack and Shopify have all told their employees they can permanently work from home. It’s the “new normal,” everyone seems to be declaring. “Business will never be the same.” Cancel your office lease. Shut your doors. Get a post office box. Everyone will be working from home!

Sounds like a perfect utopia for those big companies. But for most of the small business owners I know, working from home will not be a “new normal.” It will be considered. It will be offered. The option will be made available more than ever before. But for the most part, small business owners who have reopened their businesses are telling their employees to come back to the office.

Why aren’t they doing what the Big Tech companies are doing? It’s simple. “You can’t run a business when no one is there,” one client recently told me. “You can't manage images on a screen all the time and you can't have a relationship over Zoom. You've got to be able to look someone in the eye, face to face.”

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If you’re a landlord, don't panic. Sure, the next year or two is going to be uncertain while the pandemic runs its course to its inevitable demise. Yes, some businesses may decide to cut back on their space. But your commercial tenants aren't going to close their offices anytime soon, unless they've gone bankrupt as a result of the economic downturn. The world is not going to go virtual. As usual, the experts and pundits are taking a trend and bending the curve to its extreme.

How do I know this? Because my 10-person company has been completely virtual since the dial-up days of the late '90s. We were working from home when working from home wasn’t even cool. My corporate address is a post office box. And sure, I've saved a few bucks on rent. But my virtual environment has also come with significant drawbacks.

For starters, we have no company culture. There is no team. There are no relationships. I have people working for me who I've personally seen face to face maybe five or six times in the past decade. I’ve had employees of my own company meeting each other for the first time at a client’s location in the middle of a project. We do not have a softball team. We don't barbecue on Friday afternoons or get together for pizza at lunch.

Everyone is so used to being on their own plan that even the mere suggestion of doing such a thing would be met with apathy. I know this because for a few years I lamely tried to hold holiday lunches that turned into small, awkward gatherings where people spent more time looking at their watches than at each other. We are dysfunctional.

My company also lacks innovation. My people are working on their projects in their own bubbles. They don't have the chance to spontaneously ask each other for advice, share client war-stories or bounce around ideas while also talking about last night’s game. When we talk, we talk by phone or on a video conference, which are poor substitutes for face-to-face conversations. Human beings need human contact. It all can’t be replaced by Zoom.

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This is why I seriously doubt those who think that conferences, conventions and meetings are “a thing of the past.” Please. All those things will be back and likely more popular than ever. Why? Because people like to travel, hang out, laugh, socialize and learn in a public gathering. Being together regularly makes it more conducive to ask questions, discuss issues and solve problems. My virtual company allows none of that, and my clients suffer because of it.

Finally, working from home doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve seen many people come and go in my company because they can’t adapt to the lifestyle. Many of them were good workers who could’ve added much value. But, for some reason, they were unable to be productive from their homes or had too many distractions or just had a personality that craved a more public environment. Talented, extroverted, strong communicators tend to be that way. Having a company where most workers are working from home means you’re excluding many workers who are just unable to be their best doing that.

As usual, the data tells us nothing. One independent study says that working from home can increase productivity by as much as 13 percent while saving commuting time. Yet, another study warns that people performed “dull” tasks better in a controlled cubicle setting than they did in a less-structured remote environment. A recent Chubb Insurance survey of more than 1,200 people found that as much as 74 percent of those respondents want to keep working from home, but many said they are “are struggling to find the right work/life balance in the work-from-home environment” and that there have been “declines in mental health, physical health (largely due to poor ergonomics in home workstations and unhealthy habits like snacking, eating and drinking more), and financial wellbeing.” A Microsoft study found that employees working from home complained of longer meetings and longer hours. No one knows what they want. But they still want it.

So, let me make this bold prediction: Within two years we’ll come to realize that the work-from-home trend is nothing more than a fad. Twitter, Google and all the rest of those super-smart people will start requiring their employees to come back to the office. They’ll retreat, just like Yahoo, IBM, Aetna, Best Buy and others did in the past when they realized that they were losing more from their remote working policies than gaining.

Of course, smart companies in the coming years will still embrace some form of remote work. They’ll understand that the cloud can be safe and effective. They’ll use their work-from-home policies to attract younger and more mobile employees and offer it up as a benefit for those who need that kind of flexibility. But they’ll still require face time. They’ll balance their remote working policies with an office. Sure, they may need a little less square footage. But they’re not going to shut their doors. This is not a good workplace strategy. I know that. I’ve been living it for two decades.

Gene Marks is founder of The Marks Group, a small-business consulting firm. He frequently appears on CNBC, Fox Business and MSNBC.