N
ow that employers are (cautiously) rolling out their reopening plans, professionals are deciding whether or not they want to continue working from home — as well as how to negotiate these arrangements.

The Great Resignation is in full swing, with 4 million Americans quitting their jobs in April 2021 alone. A survey from Monster.com conducted last month found that an astonishing 95% of workers are considering changing jobs. And while managers are waking up about employee balance, it may not be fast enough: 61% of global business leaders say they’re thriving right now, but for those without decision-making authority, the stat is a whopping 23 percentage points lower.

Work-from-home hype is everywhere at the moment, which is why a study I recently stumbled across nearly knocked me off my chair.

Nicholas Bloom is an economics professor at Stanford. And according to Mr. Bloom’s research, when it comes to moving up in your career, working remotely may not be such a great idea.

The study was from 2014 and obviously doesn’t take into account the forced remote working conditions of the last 18 months. But in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Mr. Bloom refreshed his concerns about the hybrid workplace transition.

The study had other terrific results that work-from-home enthusiasts have long championed: Improved productivity, higher employee satisfaction, and lower employee turnover. However, the promotion of these employees fell — by a lot.

Why?

Working from home: Ideal or isolating?

The study followed the results of a work-from-home experiment at Ctrip, a Chinese-owned travel company with 16,000 employees. Ctrip randomly sorted a group of call center employees into either working from home or commuting to the office.

  • Work-from-home employees had a 13% increase in performance.
  • When Ctrip expanded the experiment to include their whole workforce — and gave workers the power to choose their setup — 50% opted to work from home.
  • This mass adoption caused productivity to spike even more, lifting overall performance improvement to 22%.

The results were impressive. But after 21 months, a more unsavory statistic about the test group surfaced: Work-from-home employees were only being promoted at half the rate of employees who were going into the office.

As expected, ambitious workers with no other home or family responsibilities opted for as much office time as possible to maximize networking opportunities. In-person environments allow for spontaneity and visibility that can only be recreated so much on Zoom calls.

It’s a diversity challenge that many companies are dealing with at the moment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 59.8% of American families with children have two working parents. A lot of these professionals want to make work-from-home work for them.

But there’s another important statistic that isn’t getting much press: As noted in the aforementioned Harvard Business Review article, Bloom and colleagues found that 21% of workers never want to work from home again.

Meanwhile, I’m going in the opposite direction

I’m currently in that “get me the hell out of my apartment” camp. Working remotely isn’t new for me — I’ve been at it for about seven years — but quarantine helped me realized I need firmer boundaries between work and home.

So I leased an office — for myself. It’s a splurge for sure, but probably cheaper than couples therapy. My energy is much better, and when you’re self-employed, good energy makes money flow. Here’s me working on this very article.

Working from home is great. It can also be lonely. Voluntarily re-cubicle myself was drastic, but I needed something drastic to buck my bad habits from lockdown. Perhaps you do too.

My sense is there’s an ebb and flow to this desire for freedom as we go through different stages of life and career. If you hadn’t worked from home before COVID arrived, parts of it may feel novel and luxurious. Parts of it probably also suck. Those feelings may change over time, so it’s important to collect as much data about the hybrid work landscape as you can.

Should workers be home, at the office, or both?

That’s ultimately a decision your company will have to make. As you wait it out and assess your options, though, here are a few things you could do to keep momentum in your corner.

  • Keep up the Zoom coffee dates. Ugh… I know. But hear me out. There’s a saying in networking: “10 minutes of belly-to-belly time is more powerful than a year of emailing back and forth”. I’ve built a lot of my business up through virtual happy hours and remote connections, and while video calls aren’t exactly the same as being in person, they’re pretty close when it comes to having someone’s undivided attention. One intimate conversation will always take you further than a hundred cute Slack comments.
  • Lay promotion groundwork now. If the option to work from home is on the table, pitch your employer or supervisor on what it would take to land a promotion under these circumstances. Employers are back on their heels at the moment; voice how you see yourself staying with the company for the long term. Drag me all you want for saying this, but if your company refuses to even entertain a conversation about what it would take to keep you for years to come… your best interests are probably not a priority.
  • Think about your long game. If you know working from home is a good fit for you — and employment prospects with this arrangement are bleak — consider doing your own thing. A consulting side hustle is how my self-employment journey began years ago, and it might be a great fit for you as well. Entrepreneurship ain’t easy, but it will let you build your career on your terms.

Life and family responsibilities inevitably shape our definition of career success. But working from home can be a double-edged sword. Position yourself in ways that keep you both visible and relevant and you’ll propel your career forward while also finding the balance that helps you live your best life.