Why working from home won't become the norm anytime soon

The advent of new digital technologies over the last few years — from Slack to Google Hangouts — has somepeople predicting that the brick-and-mortar office is crumbling. Soon, they say, suits and commutes will be relics of the past as more of us work in our pajamas from our living rooms.

Yet there’s one major reason why traditional workspaces will never disappear: People generally like coming into an office and interacting with their coworkers face-to-face.

That’s what Stanford researchers found when they offered some employees at a Chinese travel agency the option to work from home four days a week. Results showed that remote workers were more productive and more satisfied with their work than those who operated out of an office. But at the end of the study, half of the remote workers expressed that they wanted to come back to the office, largely because they were lonely.

A similar outcome occurred when the digital photo album company Timehop closed its New York offices for two weeks and encouraged all employees to work remotely, ideally from somewhere outside their homes. Staffers travelled all over the world, as far as Denmark and Puerto Rico.

While some people appreciated the opportunity to work remotely, some said they felt distracted and had difficulty maintaining work-life balance. Others missed the social interactions with coworkers. Ultimately, the company decided that they weren’t set up to be a “fully distributed” team and would not offer remote work as a perk.

To be sure, the number of remote workers is trending upward — between 2005 and 2012, the number of employees operating outside the office grew nearly 80% to 3.2 million workers. But that still represents just 2.6% of the American workforce.

Moreover, other research found that, between 2005 and 2012, the number of major employers that allow regular telecommuting grew only 2%. And in 2012 only 2% of the US workforce considered home their primary place of work. In other words, most remote workers only work remotely part-time.

This may be partially because employers prefer their staff to work in company offices. But it’s also likely because employees themselves enjoy the office setting.

Instead of a fully remote workforce, it’s likely that the next decade or so will see more employees working from home a few days a week. Perhaps what American workers really want is the flexibility to choose when, where, and with whom they work every day.

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