November 2021 | 

Deciding Where Work Happens: Advice for Employees

Deciding Where Work Happens: Advice for Employees

In his new book The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work, and the Hard Choices We All Face, Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli explores the pros and cons of returning to the office versus part- or full-time remote work — and says employees need to carefully weigh their options now, before they must decide where they want to work.

Wharton@Work recently sat down with Cappelli, the director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, to discuss the research gathered in the last 30 years on remote work and what we know already about how it went during the pandemic. Here, he offers sometimes startling advice for employees about what they should keep in mind when making the decision. (Our conversation about considerations for employers ran in last month’s issue here).

Wharton@Work: What’s the most common misconception about choosing to continue working from home?

Peter Cappelli: Caveat emptor! Future remote work won’t be like it was in the past, so you shouldn’t base your decision on what you liked or didn’t like about it when it was mandatory. In that scenario, all or most of your coworkers were remote, your boss was remote, and many of your external stakeholders were remote. There was a real sense that we were all “in this together.” People were remarkably understanding and accepting of quirky situations, whether IT related or the result of the blurred line between home and work (think dogs barking and children crying during meetings). Don’t expect that kind of tolerance to continue.

Whether or not you stay home, many of your colleagues will be back in the office, and work will be much more like the experience before the pandemic. Previous studies of telework tell us a fair bit about work environments that include some remote workers. It wasn’t great. It’s hard to get attention and easy to get forgotten. The importance of being in the office, of “face time” for signaling value, will come back, so for those at home there likely won’t be the same recognition or opportunities.

W@W: But many people loved working from home. Won’t there be some positive aspects of remote work that will stay the same?

PC: The real question is, will those positives outweigh the downsides? Prior research shows that while home can provide a respite from the office, it is also the case that we bring our office problems home, and that can disrupt our life there. If we are always at home, then there is no getting away from the office. The workday can be never-ending. During COVID-19, remote work appeared to intrude into what had been clearer work-life boundaries before the pandemic. We can’t know yet if it will be possible to renegotiate those boundaries.

Another consideration is that face time matters, and not just in terms of socializing with colleagues. The more of your peers who will be returning, the worse it will be for you if you stay home. You will be competing with them for assignments and promotions — and those in the office have access to more information, can signal commitment more easily and are therefore perceived better, and are more likely to win. Research also tells us that fully remote workers make more personal sacrifices than their colleagues, including volunteering to do extra work or working late hours.

W@W: How does your supervisor fit into the equation?

PC: Who that person is and how they handled remote workers during the pandemic is important. Are you confident that he or she trusts you and will continue to allow you to work without micromanaging or monitoring you?

It will be much easier to work from home if your employer has gotten clearer and more explicit about performance management — here’s what we want you to be doing and how we want to measure it — and if they are requiring supervisors to do more check-ins with remote workers to head off problems. That is, has your organization helped supervisors grow to be able to manage remote workers, or were they left to their own devices to try to figure it out?

W@W: What are some of the other questions employees should be asking?

PC: The first and most obvious thing to consider is, if remote work is not being offered to everyone, why are they offering it to me? Are you being perceived as less engaged? Depending on your career goals, you might want to work on retooling that perception. If you want to be an individual contributor as opposed to climbing the management ranks, you can more easily achieve that goal and work at home. But the caveat is that jobs like that are also the easiest to turn into contracting positions, and employers have been pushing more jobs in that direction.

The second is whether you will continue to be trusted to manage your time: that is one of the top reasons people liked working remotely. We were able to build in a break for dog walks or errands, and stop work to greet the kids or our partner. That’s quite important. But if that trust is not going to be there — let’s say your employer is going to install electronic monitoring [which is currently growing at 300 percent] — much of what you enjoyed about remote work will be gone.