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Why Do We (Still) Go To Work?

Columnist: Mike E. Duffy
April, 2019 Issue

Mike E. Duffy
All articles by columnist

I work. My spouse works. And both my adult kids work. I’m going to assume that you work, too. And chances are, we all go somewhere else to do it, at a not-inconsiderable expense when you consider time and money. At the same time, particularly here in the Bay Area, we read stories about how people can no longer afford to live where they work. I commute to San Francisco to work, and I sometimes wonder where all the people who aren’t lawyers, physicians, doctors, and techies live. Opposition in Queens, N.Y., over Amazon’s proposal to build a second headquarters there centered on how, despite new jobs being created, the influx of 25,000 workers seeking to live near their jobs would drive rents higher and result in (more) overcrowded transportation and schools.

And yet, recent studies of the U.S. workforce show that less than 3 percent of us work from home more, at least half the time. Last weekend, my wife, Michelle, was at her office on a Sunday, trying to get ahead of her backlog of work. I took her lunch in the afternoon, and we ate together. Since this topic was on my mind, I asked her why she couldn’t get caught up from home, since she works on a laptop. I already know that she doesn’t have the same computer setup at home: at work she has two monitors, and she’s directly connected to the office network via Wi-Fi.

At home, she doesn’t have virtual private network (VPN) access to her office network, which means she has to jump through some hoops to access files, which are normally a click away. And that access frequently times out, since she’s not accessing files often enough to maintain the link. She could probably get VPN access, but it may be easier for her to drive 20 minutes than to wrestle with corporate IT to set her up. A second issue is that not all the materials she regularly works with are in electronic form, which would require duplicating and maintaining those materials at home. And because she works with sensitive data, there are issues around security. Finally, as the leader of a large group, much of her time is spent in meetings: alas most, but not all, of her meetings have dial-in numbers and/or WebEx support.

But solving those problems might not change anything. The primary reason? Staff surveys conducted by her employer show that they’re more satisfied with their jobs when leadership is present on site to support them. And of course, there are times when a problem requires you to simply be present. When the unexpected happens, you don’t want to have to wait for someone to drive in. Unlike my spouse, I work in technology and I don’t manage others. Why am I still commuting to work? I used to think it was due to the “butts in seats” mentality of some managers, who believe that unless you’re being watched, you aren’t going to be productive. Some employers want to be sure they’re getting a full 40 hours of effort from their salaried employees. Do those employees need to be monitored to do their best work, or is it just a control issue?

In a 2008 study by MIT researchers, collaborative teams working on complex tasks were shown to be more productive in a face-to-face environment than when collaborating only by email. Newer tools like video conferencing and group chat (e.g. Slack) are an improvement over email, of course. For me, Slack has become an essential part of working with my team, even though we sit steps apart in an open-concept office: communicating via Slack saves getting up, doesn’t disturb others by talking, provides a record, and works asynchronously). Even when someone is working remotely, on Slack it can be impossible to tell without asking. But it’s not quite the same as being there.




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