Working from home (WFH) has never been so mainstream. For many businesses it has been a lifeline that has enabled them to keep working during the pandemic. And many have vowed to keep doing it more regularly when ‘normal’ life returns. Some, such as asset management firm Schroders and technology leader Siemens, have announced permanent flexible working plans, while others including Shopify, Slack and Twitter have gone as far as to say that staff can work from home ‘forever’.

But there are signs that the WFH dream is starting to lose its sheen. Some of the companies that once saw it as the future, such as Barclays bank, now say they want their employees to return to the office.  Employees, too, are starting to wonder if it’s the nirvana they first thought, with some expressing fears that working from home could, among other things, negatively impact their career. Are they right to be worried?

Pandemic Versus Normal Times

It’s inevitable that many careers will stall during the pandemic. And for those whose jobs allow, working from home is simply how it’s going to be for some time.

However, my concern is for people who, post-pandemic, are given the choice and opt to permanently work from home. As melodramatic as it sounds, their decision could make or break their career. 

No More Networking

According to a survey from Blind, an anonymous professional network with 3.6M verified users, 53% of professionals fear that working from home has had a detrimental effect on their career progression, with 73% saying they haven’t been able to network internally since the pandemic began.

Right now, with many offices still shut, networking as we know it is on hold and it’s a level playing field. However, as soon as people can choose, those who return to the office and are visible will undoubtedly be better off career-wise. Networking and getting to know people properly are key to making a name for yourself, particularly when you’re starting out in your career. And in order to progress within your organization, it’s important to be seen and for people to know what you do. This is easy to achieve in the flesh, much harder when your only communication is online.

Training Takes A Back Seat

People who permanently work from home may also risk missing out on vital learning and development. That’s not to say that online training isn’t effective.

However, it’s not quite the same as learning alongside (and in the same room as) your peers with whom you can share notes and trade experiences. This is particularly important for young people taking their first step on the career ladder who won’t yet know what’s expected of them or how business gets done. The same goes for employees who are new to a company or industry. There’s a lot to be said for learning by osmosis. Simply participating in meetings, observing the interactions between people in the room and seeing how things are done is invaluable.

Informal coaching and real-time feedback can help you hone your skills. However, conversations with your boss after a big meeting or important pitch, when they might give you pointers on your performance, don’t happen as easily online – if at all.

Working Mothers Could Be At A Disadvantage

In theory, WFH should make it easier for working mothers to juggle their family and professional lives. During the pandemic, though, the opposite has been true – with mothers spending 15 hours more on average than fathers on domestic duties each week, according to Boston Consulting Group. Many women are feeling burnt out as a result, to the extent that they’re considering scaling back or dropping out of the workforce altogether, finds a report from McKinsey and Lean In. This is worrying news for women’s career progression and it’s important that businesses are attuned to the issue and can provide the necessary support at this tough time.

Looking beyond Covid, if employees are given a choice, there’s a danger that working mothers may be more inclined to opt for permanent remote working so that they can honor their caregiving responsibilities. This could potentially put their careers at a disadvantage if their peers are back in the office, making a very visible contribution to the company and on hand for quick or informal decision-making discussions. This is neither right nor fair, but it’s a risk.

What’s The Answer?

That’s not to say that working from home doesn’t have its benefits. On the contrary. Many people enjoy the flexibility it offers and find they’re better able to concentrate, and there’s no reason why they should stop doing it when life goes back to ‘normal’ – provided that it’s not at the expense of the office.

My advice would be to think very carefully before deciding to work full-time hours, permanently from home. Your employer may say that they don’t expect you to return to the office, but how will they feel if you follow that to the letter? It’s much better to clarify that in advance than to make a choice you’re later judged for. 

Let’s not be too hasty to give up the office. It offers an unparalleled opportunity to experience company culture and community, to collaborate, innovate and – crucially – to develop, grow and establish yourself. Make it part of how you work if you can. Your career will thank you.

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