Flexible work hours, a comfortable environment, and no boss to catch you slacking off.
To the naked eye, these factors paint an idyllic picture of working from home: you reclining on your couch in your most comfortable loungewear, your laptop balancing precariously on your thighs and the ambient buzz of your TV playing your favorite Netflix programmes.
Indeed, COVID-19 has made the dream scenario of many into a mandated reality, as many workers have been forced to telecommute from their homes – including, of course, undergraduate interns.
Curious about how our students are handling the shift to teleworking, I spoke to a few Communications & New Media (CNM) majors about their experiences interning from home over the summer.
Were their experiences congruent with their expectations?
Is working from home really as cushy as it seems?
Read on to find out.
Is telecommuting desirable?
According to my survey (with an admittedly minuscule sample size of seven), five out of seven student interns believed that working from home was a desirable arrangement, even before embarking on their work-from-home internships.
The surveyed students largely agreed that flexible working hours was one of the most compelling advantages of working from home; only one student did not share this sentiment, as her working hours remained the same whether she was in the office or at home.
Janelle, a Year 3 student, explained why she enjoyed telecommuting, “I'm a night owl, so for me it's easier to schedule work around my sleeping hours rather than get up early to head to the office! I can also take breaks as and when I need to.”
Most surveyed shared the perspective that the telecommuting arrangement allowed for more time to spend with family and on leisure, since the travelling factor has been eliminated.
Another commonly cited advantage was that of attire: minimal strictures on attire allowed workers to dress comfortably as long as they appeared presentable.
Some respondents also reported savings on food, as they were able to eat home-cooked meals while working at home. This allowed them to avoid overspending on work lunches – a significant expenditure of the office worker.
However, it was interesting that only one student experienced higher focus and productivity in working from home.
According to Karen (not her real name), the flexible working hours afforded by the work from home arrangement allowed her to get more rest. She hence experienced greater productivity due to being more well-rested.
Unfortunately, this was not a common experience, indicating that telecommuting might be more a bane to productivity, than a boon.
What are the disadvantages of telecommuting?
Indeed, four respondents reported decreased focus or productivity when working from home. The surveyed students had common issues of dealing with distractions, and feeling overly comfortable to the point of not wanting to work. To that end, three students reported having issues switching focus onto their work.
However, two common concerns rose above the rest, as they were nearly universally experienced by the students I surveyed: inability to separate working from home life, and feelings of isolation.
An anonymous student told me, “I found it hard to draw the boundary between rest and work. In the office, we are pressured not to start texting friends and surfing the net in the middle of the work day. But I'm not policed at home and sometimes a stray email carrying advertisements for a sale can lead me down a rabbit hole of spending hours online shopping.”
As the lines between the working and home realms were blurred, the working hours became more erratic. Karen explained, “Sometimes supervisors will text me at 9 or 10 pm, clearly after work hours. There is a lack of work-life boundary at home because you are deemed as ‘constantly available’ which is problematic.”
With the implementation of the circuit breaker to combat COVID-19, when all citizens were required to stay home, this issue was particularly prevalent.
Where workers could previously “leave work at the office”, this was no longer possible, as the office and the home became one and the same. All seven respondents agreed that they were unable to separate their working and home life, and suffered for it, sometimes having to work late into the night or on weekends.
One student, Weiling, told me she even felt compelled to work on the weekends out of sheer boredom during the circuit breaker period. I can’t say I relate.
Six out of seven respondents also reported feeling socially or professionally isolated while telecommuting.
Janelle lamented, “I realized it's a lot harder to talk comfortably with my colleagues since I have very limited time to talk to them aside from weekly time meetings. Even after 2 months of interning, it's still a bit awkward.”
The respondents reported that they did not feel included within office social circles, as they were newcomers and had little opportunity to integrate with a work from home arrangement. This resulted in an inefficient working relationship for some, as social barriers impeded their ability to work well with their new colleagues.
The students also expressed difficulty in expanding their professional network via socializing, typically a key benefit of undertaking a summer internship.
Another common issue raised was the lack of dedicated workspaces at home, as the students had to compete for space with their working parents, who were, of course, telecommuting. One student, who did not have to contend with this issue, told me she counted herself lucky.
“I am lucky to have a dedicated space to work at home with few distractions,” she said. “But I can understand people who may not have the space or privacy to work well at home may find working from home a problem.”
The survey, albeit lacking in sample size, seemed to uncover more detriments to telecommuting than it did benefits. This was unexpected; given the rosy picture many associate with working from home.
Despite the detriments, when I asked the students if they now consider working from home more or less desirable than a regular office job, having experienced the former first-hand, six out of seven still thought telecommuting was an attractive prospect.
The outlying student expressed that they felt that there was no superior option. They believed that productivity would increase if both working arrangements were combined: for example, working in the office three days a week and telecommuting for the other two working days.
Two students, whose initial assessment of telecommuting was that it was undesirable, had a change of heart.
One of the students explained anonymously, “When I finally experienced working from home, I realized it is not as inconvenient as I had perceived initially. I think working from home is a new concept and some may be inadvertently resistant to change, but it's actually quite okay.”
It appears that the detriments of telecommuting, such as isolation and erratic hours, are not enough to deter from its benefits, like flexible working hours and comfort at home.
However, it is apparent that there is more to working from home than meets the eye. Where many might have thought it would be a walk in the park compared to regular office work, its reality has brought on an unprecedented slew of challenges for workers to take on.
So, working from home: desirable or undesirable? I leave that to you. In truth, every person’s mileage will vary, and whether you find working from home a desirable prospect will largely depend on where your personal priorities lie.
If, in the future, you ever need to choose between an office and a telecommuting job, you would be well-equipped to look past your idealized concept of working from home, and consider its challenging reality.