The Unseen Costs of Work from Home

With the current situation, the volume of office workers who are working from home has increased dramatically. Oh, not all office workers are WFH now – I know plenty who are collecting unemployment, and my heart goes out to them. Unemployment, when you have worked your whole life and are unemployed by circumstances outside your control, sucks big time.

But enough people are WFH that it has caused a huge shift in the paradigm.

Not because the workers like it – some do, some don’t – but because employers are realizing that, hey, employees can be just as productive working from home as they are in the office, and sometimes more so.

Suddenly all the “experts” who were promoting open office and “hoteling” as the way to go are promoting work from home as the new normal. An article in the Times yesterday predicted the end of Manhattan as we know it because the big banks – those who own the tall, shiny buildings at the south end of the island, filled with tens of thousands of office workers – have realized, hey, we don’t have to pay for all this overpriced real estate: people can work from home.

Employees, suddenly recognizing that they don’t have to drive or take a bus to a train station, take two trains to reach the city and then walk or take the subway to the office — a commute of up to 2 hours each way, sometimes working on their laptop all the way — can have all that time back. They don’t have to miss breakfast or dinner with their spouse and kids; they have time to exercise, to get things done around the house. Awesome, they think.

But is it awesome? I worked decades in an office then moved to a start-up, which was WFH by default when I started and, even when it built an office, I was still WFH because the office was in a different city that I visited once a month. When I left the start-up, I made “working in an onsite office” a requirement for my next job search because I hated WFH so much.

So I am familiar with the lifestyle, the challenges, the perks. Here are a few things to consider:

Real Estate Costs

Yes, employers love WFH because they suddenly don’t have to pay for the cost of real estate. In cities especially, this can be the first or second highest expense for a company (the other huge expense being the cost of the employees themselves). But even if you’re not in an office together with other people, you still need an office space. And if the company isn’t paying for the office space, who is?

The employee.

Yes, we’re all being brave and doing WFH right now and we’re making it work. In my home, I am lucky that my home office was established when I worked at the start-up. When my current employer went WFH, I easily shifted back into my old office set-up.

My husband, on the other hand, is camped out on the coffee table in the living room, his laptop on a cardboard box on top of a pile of magazines, with the TV serving as his second monitor, sitting on a rickety chair. If both of our employers went WFH, we’d have to come up with another solution. Adding a second desk to the guest room – where my office is – wouldn’t work because we are both on the phone a lot. The only place to add a second desk would be the bedroom, which would add significantly to our stress because work would always be there with us, looming over us as we slept.

I look at other people I work with on Zoom calls. People who are working at dining room tables, with the TV and small children behind them. People who are working from couches. People who migrate from room to room. People who are sharing space with a spouse or roommate, who you can hear in the background, doing their own work, or microwaving. This is not a permanent solution for someone who is working from home. If nothing else, the ergo-dynamics are bad enough to cause carpal-tunnel syndrome and back problems.

The solution is to buy bigger space where you can have dedicated offices. And who is paying for that space? Not the employers.

Infrastructure Costs

A second consideration is infrastructure costs. I am lucky enough to have really good wifi but even my signal gets weak sometimes. And there is certainly a difference amongst colleagues and friends – one director I know can’t even show her face, her wifi is so bad — and she’s in Manhattan.

Dreaming about a cabin in the woods somewhere? People who blithely retreated to their country homes are finding out about country wifi. A former colleague who lives in rural Virginia said he can’t even get a cell signal in his county. When he complained to his provider, they offered to put a cell tower on his property to solve the problem. Right.

Or maybe you’ll move, not to one of those cabins rehabbed by Maine Cabin Masters, but to a small town, like the one in Hometown. My mom lives in a small town and I went out and did WFH to take care of her when she was recuperating a couple of years ago. Her wifi sucked, it constantly crashed and we had to call her provider regularly. When I Facetime her now, we sometimes have to spend ages troubleshooting her wifi.

Who will bear the burden of getting the wifi working in your home office? Not your employer.

And what about equipment? Many office workers have gotten used to having two or three huge monitors on their desks. I was lucky, when I came home, my employer asked what equipment I needed and sent me a huge monitor so I don’t have to work off my dinky laptop screen. A lot of office workers don’t have companies that generous. A lot of people are working via VPN on their personal computers.

So, is the long-term expectation that you will receive, if you are lucky, a laptop from your company? But you will need to provide the wireless keyboard and mouse, the large monitor(s), a printer yourself?

To say nothing of noise-cancelling headphones. Several times I’ve had employers and clients complain about the background noise that is a matter of course in my neighborhood. It’s relatively quiet now that everything has stopped – mostly just sirens since I live near a firehouse and hospitals – but once things open up again, the noise levels will increase significantly. I’ve had two different bosses tell me, “You should get some noise canceling headphones.” I’ve looked into them – they’re several hundred dollars. Who’s paying for them? Not the employer.

Oh yeah, whose phone are you using? Not the employer’s. Who’s paying for that phone? Not your employer. In the summer, you’ve been turning off your A/C at home while you’re at the office — who will pay for the electricity that runs your A/C when you’re working from home? Not your employer. When I started working from home, I had to buy an office chair, a foot-warmer and a seat warmer because my office is so cold during the winter. Did my employer pay for these? No. This is the price of working from home.

And consider the impact on recruiting – many companies were already moving to tele-interviews. Now your employer will be able to judge your equipment during your interview – hm, this candidate doesn’t have noise-canceling headphones and is hunched over her laptop; the other guy had a full home set-up that I won’t have to pay for. Hmmm, the decision is clear.

Health Costs

One of the reasons that I dislike WFH so much is that I found that I fell out of shape while working from home. You just don’t realize how much you move around in an office setting. Need to pick something up from a printer – it’s down the hall. The distance to the bathroom or the kitchen is much further. Every meeting requires you to get up out of your chair and walk down the hall, around the corner to a conference room. Or maybe you pop up and walk down the hall to ask someone something.

Compare this to WFH: you sit at your desk, working. You don’t have to get up to go to meetings. Heck, there are some days that some of us are lucky if we get out of our chair once in a three hour span. It takes a toll.

As does the easy proximity to my home kitchen. Many office kitchens have maybe a coffee maker, a soda machine, a candy machine – and if you’re lucky, the machines require coins. Start-up offices have cookies, candy, and snacks. My latest job filled the kitchen with healthy snacks like bananas and avocados. But all of those kitchens have been away from my office. If I wanted to go to them, I had to make a decision and go out of my way to get to them. My home kitchen is right there, filled with unhealthy snacks that my very generous sister-in-law sent us to keep us from going to the grocery store because she worries about us catching the virus if we venture out to buy green leafy vegetables or eggs.

The easy proximity to food when I’m fighting off stress-eating, and the lack of exercise is killing my wardrobe. That and the fact that I’m not walking 30 minutes each way to work. Now, if I want to get exercise, I have to make a decision to get it. I recognize that I’m not the norm but I think this is an unrecognized problem.

Let me touch briefly on mental health: isolation is bad for us; teleconferencing doesn’t solve that problem. And, if you’re shy, you run the risk of becoming even more isolated and marginalized than you would be in an office setting. There are people I used to talk to every day in the office, even though we weren’t working on projects together; we chatted as we passed each other in the hall, we drifted into lunches together or shared weekend stories as we made our morning beverages of choice. Now, all those interactions are gone. It’s isolating.

Unpaid Women’s Work

The last point that I want to make is the toll on women, who already bear most of the responsibility for childcare and housework. When I was working at home and my husband was going to an office every day, he had this weird thing going on in his head as if I wasn’t really working. On his way out the door every morning, he’d pause, and then give me a honey-do list. Sometimes he expected me to pop out to the grocery store before he got home. Sometimes he wanted me to call someone and follow up on something. And when he got home, he inevitably asked me what was for dinner.

“I don’t know,” I’d say. “I’ve been on conference calls with Mexico all day. I didn’t even get time for lunch and I’ve had to pee for three hours.”

I had to keep reminding him that I wasn’t unemployed, I was working from home.

There is a serious WFH risk that women will have conversations like this more often, even if their spouse is working from home, too. If a child is sick, a parent takes care of it. And if the child is sick at home, the parent is not getting much WFH done, because she is constantly popping up to care for the child or the child is interrupting the parent. That parent is usually the mother.

And then there are the expectations that women put on themselves. I read a study recently that compared how much mess and clutter men see than women see. There is a difference and the judgement that goes along with the mess is different, too – women put a lot more stress on themselves to keep their space clean. I know that I can’t focus in a messy space. Every day, as I sit and look at my photo on video calls, I see all the clutter behind me – my husband’s unused exercise equipment, huge stacks of boxes that i need to take to storage, magazines that need to be recycled that my husband is saving because he might need them, piles of things that won’t fit in our closets. It’s a huge distraction. Thank god for background-blur!

And, when I venture out of my office, I see the clutter all around my husband’s workspace, on the sideboard, on the breakfast bar, on the table. I find myself constantly picking up, moving, cleaning, fighting the battle against clutter and chaos. In a normal time, I would be doing this maybe 15 minutes a day. Now it happens constantly throughout the day, whenever I get up from my chair. I’m exhausted.

So think on this, when you are applauding the latest trend in workspace. There are hidden costs associated with WFH that haven’t been quantified yet.

And you’re going to pay them, like it or not.

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