Is the bloom off the rose for the work-from-home movement? Mike Complita thinks so.
In the early days of the pandemic, many A/E/C firms were pleasantly surprised by how well they were handling the disruption caused by work-from-home (WFH) policies. They reported that productivity was strong, deadlines were being met, and employees felt safer.
But as the summer progressed, questions arose about WFH. In an article headlined “Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All,” the Wall Street Journal reported, “Projects take longer. Collaboration is harder. And training new workers is a struggle.”
Complita can relate. Principal in charge at Seattle-based Elliott Bay Design Group and president of SeeSaw Services, he says WFH presents challenges to management and holds pitfalls for workers. “Many employees love working remotely. But I don’t think they see how it can limit their growth,” Complita says. “Over the years I’ve mentored a lot of people and, I hope, helped them advance in their careers. But with people working from home, the mentoring process is much more challenging.”
Collaboration in general becomes a problem, he says: “Under normal circumstances, you can turn to colleagues in the cubicles around you and say, ‘I’m struggling with this, what do you think?’ Working remotely, these unplanned interactions are less likely to happen.”
He believes these impromptu moments help workers do their jobs better and find new opportunities to apply their skills. He also cites an intangible benefit in the interaction and team building with other employees.
For their part, managers are being challenged as more employees take advantage of WFH policies to move even further away from the offices.
“A few of our employees were approved to relocate right around the time Covid-19 started, for reasons unrelated to the pandemic that were justifiable to management,” Complita explains. “Having seen this but not being aware of the details, many on our staff are now strongly considering doing the same for personal reasons. But we don’t necessarily see it as a positive for our company or the individual.
“We always try to support our staff, but experience has proven that living beyond reasonable driving distance to the office and our core working areas can have a negative impact on their careers. It’s a real balancing act.”
Complita says one of the biggest issues with WFH is travel expenses: “Someone who used to live near the office and could be on-site at a project in thirty to ninety minutes will now have to spend a day each way traveling. In most cases, management sees the added time and cost of travel as the employee’s responsibility.” If the project is urgent, accommodating the added travel time is often not in the client’s best interest.
Complita says his firm is working on guidelines on mentoring, training, and travel expenses, which he calls “one of the biggest issues we are grappling with as we emerge from the pandemic and seek the right balance for the long-term success of our people and our firm.” •