Should You Work From Home After COVID? How to Decide
With increasing availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and more people signing on for that post-vaxx life every day, we’re finally letting ourselves make real plans for what we only dreamed of a few months ago: post-pandemic life.
For a lot of people, the biggest change-slash-return-to-normal that means a return to the office. In the flesh.
But can we just go back?
Those of us who’ve been work-from-home evangelists for a while saw the writing on the wall as soon as companies sent workers home last spring. We figured that once employees tasted the sweet remote-work life, it would be tough to convince them to return to the office five days a week.
And we were right. While just 20% of employees whose jobs can be done remotely were working from home before the coronavirus pandemic, 54% say they would want to work from home after COVID has subsided, according to Pew Research Center.
Should You Work From Home After COVID?
Your pandemic experience might not be the best gauge for whether you should work from home long term. This forced experiment has been riddled with extra challenges and complications you won’t normally face.
So if the whole thing is new to you and you’re trying to figure out whether to seek a long-term work-from-home arrangement, here’s the ultimate guide to figure it out.
Pros and Cons of Working From Home
- No commute: The environmental benefits of fewer humans on the road in 2020 were stark. (Anyone else see “The Year Earth Changed” yet?) Eliminating your commute can also mean sleeping in, more family time, less risk of accidents, less wear on your car and a way cheaper gas bill.
- Accessibility: Offices can be filled with landmines for people with disabilities or mental illness. Working from home can come with conveniences and comforts that aren’t available in an office, so everyone can do their best work.
- More focus for deep work: Contrary to popular myths, an employee tends to be more productive working from home, not less. You have fewer opportunities for distractions like cake in the breakroom, co-worker commentary or those team members stopping by with “just a quick question” just as you settle in to concentrate on writing up your monthly report.
- More time with family and pets: Eliminating your commute and being home during your lunch hour could make space in your day to pick kids up from school, walk the dog, pet the cat (or whatever is appealing about having cats) and get dinner started at a convenient time.
- No dress code: We only needed about three hours of quarantine to become a fully fledged Sweatpants Nation. Zero honest people are more comfortable in hard pants, and wouldn’t being totally comfortable in your body be a boon to your work day?
- Efficient meetings: Setting aside technical difficulties — which you’ve hopefully overcome by now — virtual meetings tend to be more efficient than in-person meetings, because everyone disappears when they’re done. People don’t tend to stick around in a Zoom room after a meeting ends early, running out the clock until their next meeting by sharing the story of their latest home decor debacle.
- Work-life flexibility: Take advantage of the extended time for deep work, and you can usually find pockets throughout your day for things you can’t take care of from the office, like starting laundry, washing dishes, working out or taking walks.
- Avoid office germs: We’re all staying home to avoid COVID-19, but don’t forget how seasonal colds and stomach flus used to rip through the office — and your family — every few months. Avoiding coworkers who insist “it’s just allergies” could help you avoid illness and missed work.
- More cooking at home: Research from PR and marketing consultancy Hunter says 71% of people who’ve been cooking more during the pandemic plan to keep it up during post-COVID life. Working from home helps you stick to that plan, by putting you at home during breakfast and lunch, and eliminating the commute that might make it tough to be home in time to cook more than a simple dinner.
- Less serendipity: Spontaneous conversations in the breakroom or among desk pods can lead to new ideas or innovation for a company. Those are harder to achieve with virtual meetings.
- Neglecting team members: You might notice some employees disappear with remote work. That could mean they’re focused and self-motivated — or it could mean they don’t participate as much when their comings and goings aren’t visible to the whole team. If you’re in a leadership role, you might also inadvertently pay less attention to some remote team members than others, which could hurt the whole team.
- No water cooler or elevator chat: Some employees hate water cooler talk, but some thrive on it. These quick moments are a way to get to know coworkers beyond their work and strike up human conversations you’re less likely to have via chat apps or in virtual meetings.
- Collaboration challenges: Sometimes you just want someone to sit next to you and point out on your screen exactly how to accomplish what they need out of a task. In person, we’re naturally equipped with the tools we need to do this, but remotely, you have to get used to — and get everyone on board with — virtual tools to facilitate it.
- Technical difficulties: We’ve all heard the tales (or experienced first hand) — the “I didn’t know I was muted” folks and the “whoops, my husband just got out of the shower in my Zoom frame” mishaps. Varying levels of internet connections among employees can also hinder communication, collaboration and productivity.
- Mixed signals: Our brains benefit from environmental cues that tell us where to focus. Your desk and workspace in the office can trigger your brain to focus more clearly on work. Home doesn’t have those built-in “time-to-work” triggers, one reason some people experience distractions working from home.
- No reason to leave the house: How much we all dislike spending endless days in our own homes isn’t the most important lesson of 2020, but it’s one to consider. Jobs are one way to get out of the house and experience varied scenery and stimulus. Without that incentive, it’s easy to look up and realize you’ve been in the same place on your couch and haven’t spoken to anyone but your cat for days.
Caveat: You can find ways to mitigate all of these drawbacks and experience office-like benefits as a remote worker. But your company and culture have to be on board, so these could turn out to be real barriers for some employees.
Working From Home Is Great For …
- Parents and people with pets who want flexibility to be available during typical work hours.
- Commuters who live a long way from work, especially in climates with severe-weather seasons.
- Knowledge workers and creatives, who need time for deep work to process information and create their work.
- Everyone who prefers sweatpants and leggings to pants suits and ties.
- Night owls who could benefit from an extra 30 minutes of sleep in the morning and the flexibility to work into the evening.
- Introverts, who like asynchronous conversations that offer time to reflect and process before responding.
- Immunocompromised folks or workers who live with them.
Working From Home Isn’t Great For…
- Highly collaborative teams that rely on impromptu communication.
- Rural companies where a lot of team members lack access to affordable, reliable and fast internet.
- Parents, couples or people with roommates who would contend with distractions from other people in the home during the workday.
Answer These Questions About Your Remote Work Experience
Any of the above factors could convince you working from home long term is or isn’t for you. Everyone’s situation is unique.
To figure out what’s the best fit for your circumstances, answer these questions:
- How’s your internet connection? Depending on the kind of work you do, you can get by with slow internet, but you need to answer this question to make sure you plan ahead before going all-in on working from home.
- What do you miss about the office environment? Do the serendipity, hubbub and routines of the office help you do your best work — or do you just need a way to get out of the house each day?
- How does working from home affect your schedule? Shrinking your morning routine and commute time, finding flexibility to work early mornings or late evenings, and building in time for workouts and cooking throughout the day could drastically change your life day-to-day. Do you want to hold onto that change?
- How (and why) has your productivity changed during the pandemic? Many workers, especially working mothers, have struggled to keep up with childcare, homeschooling and working from home simultaneously during the pandemic. But what might your work-from-home life look like if the kids were in daycare or school? Related: Might you muster a little more creativity when you’re no longer facing pandemic stress?
- Which tools do you need to do your best work? Do you have access to everything you need to succeed working from home? Have you had to make do without anything in the past year — and can you get it if you want to work from home after COVID?
How to Ask Your Boss About Working From Home
Once you’ve decided working from home is the right move for you, follow these tips for how to ask to work from home after COVID:
- Get clear on what you’re asking for — do you want to work at home just a few days each week or full time? Are you trying to skip a commute or be home with kids?
- Understand the company’s priorities and how you can shape your request to support them.
- Prepare a report of your performance to show off how productive you’ve been since the company’s gone remote so far.
- Explain how the company benefitswhen employees work from home.
- Anticipate problems, and come armed with potential solutions.
- Propose a transition plan that addresses how working from home might affect your team and what kinds of tools you’ll need to succeed.
If you find yourself in a company that isn’t willing or able to accommodate long-term remote work, maybe you’re ready to look for another job. Check out these work-from-home companies that support remote work with or without a pandemic.
Is Working From Home Right for You?
I might be a total remote work evangelist, but I can’t say whether working from home is the right choice for your circumstances.
Consider your experiences from the past year — but with a grain of salt. What did you like about working from home? What did you struggle with — and do you expect that to be an issue after the pandemic?
The decision to work from home could be life-changing, for better or worse. So don’t take it too lightly. Make sure you’re motivated by more than just your newfound love affair with sweatpants.
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) has been writing and editing since 2011, covering personal finance, careers and digital media.