During the COVID pandemic, working from home was mandatory for many workers. But now that the pandemic is fading, working from home is becoming optional. In our hospitals, some employees could not work from home, for example: nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, radiology technicians and lab technicians. But other jobs could be done remotely, for example: scheduling, revenue cycle, customer service, and finance. Should these workers now return to work in the hospital?
In many industries, remote working has now become the norm. Historically, the U.S. average office space vacancy rate was 12.5%. In the first quarter of 2023, that rate is now 18.5%. New office construction has plummeted and many downtown office buildings are being converted into apartments. 39% of American workers have “tele-workable” jobs that can be done remotely. During the height of the pandemic, 55% of these workers with tele-workable jobs did work from home. Currently, 35% of these workers continue to work from home. Overall, 22 million Americans work from home all the time and many more have “hybrid” work, meaning that they work from home some days and work in the workplace building other days.
Advantages of working from home
Every job is a little different and some jobs have more benefits from working remotely than other jobs. There are benefits to both the employer and the employee to working from home. For the employer, advantages include:
- Reduced need for office space and conference rooms
- Reduced need for parking space
- Reduced utility expenses
- Reduced need for security staff and janitorial services
- Reduced use of sick time by employees who are either on COVID isolation or have other infections with only mild symptoms
- Reduced use of personal time-off by employees to stay home with a sick child
- Improved employee satisfaction
- Ability to draw workers from a larger geographic area
For the employee, there are even greater advantages:
- Reduced commuting transportation costs
- Elimination of daily commute time
- More time with family and pets
- Reduced expense of commercially-prepared food (lunches, coffee, snacks)
- Reduced cost of work attire
- Potential for fewer work-time interruptions by co-workers
- Greater flexibility of working hours
- Flexibility of living location
- Greater flexibility to take care of errands and appointments
- Reduced exposure to infected co-workers (not only COVID but also influenza and common colds)
Disadvantages of working from home
As the pandemic has been winding down, many employers are requiring their employees to return to the office, at least some days of the week. The reason is that for many employers, there are disadvantages to remote working that out-weigh the advantages. Some of these disadvantages to the employer include:
- Potential for some employees to not work the expected number of hours per week
- Potential for worker distraction by children, spouses, pets and other temptations of home
- Reduced ability to have group “brainstorming”
- Reduced spontaneous interactions with other employees
- Potential for communication errors from inability to pick up on non-verbal communication
- Reduced mentoring of junior employees by more experienced employees
For the worker, there can also be disadvantages, including:
- Reduced access to mentoring by senior employees
- Reduced visibility to company leaders for promotion consideration
- Reduced networking with other employees outside of one’s own department
- Social isolation and loneliness
- Elimination of on-site work perks such as office supplies, coffee, company fitness centers
- No daily change of scenery
- Expenses such as computers and video equipment
So, who should and who should not work from home?
Every year, the senior leaders of our hospital would get together for an all-day retreat. We would set our goals for the upcoming fiscal year as well as the strategies and tactics we would use to achieve those goals. Part of that process included succession planning for hospital managers and directors. We would identify not only those employees who we thought had potential for promotion in their own department but also those employees who demonstrated skills that predicted success in a different department. The workers who were most typically considered were those who we knew from interpersonal interactions in the hospital or who we had been able to directly observe at work. Working from home can put the employee at a disadvantage when senior leaders do succession planning and consider employees for promotion.
Working from home is a trade-off of advantages and disadvantages. The balance between those advantages and disadvantages will differ between different employers and departments; it can also differ between different employees in the same department. Every employer and every department within the employer needs to determine where that balance lies in order to decide about continued utilization of working from home. For most employers, offering the option of working from home can insure access to highly qualified employees who, because of geographic location or personal preference of remote working, would otherwise not consider working for that employer. For the employee, choosing to work from home may be preferable at a time in their life when their priorities are the flexibility of work hours and time savings from the lack of a commute. However, for employees who need the benefit of workplace visibility and mentoring for promotion and career advancement, working in the workplace is often preferable.
Work from home is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Most employers (including hospitals) should neither require all employees to come to work in the workplace nor require all employees to work from home. Just because someone can do their job working from home does not mean that they should do their job working from home. The U.S. unemployment rate is currently 3.4%; the last time the rate was lower was in 1953. With the unemployment rate at a historic low, employers experience stiff competition for the best employees. By not offering a work-from-home option, employers restrict the pool of job applicants and risk resignation of some existing employees. But by not offering in-workplace options, employers miss opportunities for professional growth of their employees which in the long-term can stifle innovation and expertise development.
The COVID pandemic has showed us that working remotely is possible for our hospitals. With the worst of the pandemic behind us, we now must decide which jobs can be performed remotely and which employees are best served by working remotely. Hospitals and employees also need to realize that the short-term advantages of working from home can sometimes come at long-term costs.
May 21, 2023