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Could working from home crush your career? An HR expert warns about pitfalls

The pressure to work at all hours of the day, combined with a lack of development opportunities, can lead to burnout and professional atrophy, according to University of Guelph professor Nita Chhinzer.

Nita Chhinzer says people working at home need to speak up and ask for development opportunities

Expert Nita Chhinzer says working from home can lead to missed opportunities for collaboration and career development. (OPOLJA / Shutterstock)

Working from home during the pandemic has had some great benefits (less commuting, more time with beloved pets and cost savings on items like parking and gas), but it could also come with some serious drawbacks, according to one human resources expert. 

Personal burnout and professional atrophy are something to watch out for, according to University of Guelph professor Nita Chhinzer.

Chhinzer, who is an associate professor of human resource management, joined The Morning Edition host Craig Norris to talk about the unexpected drawbacks of working from home. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Craig Norris: What do you see as long term challenges to someone working from home?

Nita Chhinzer: There are two long-term challenges. One set is professional, the other is personal.

On the professional side, sometimes staying home, working from home remotely in the long-term, can have a real career limiting effect. We get overlooked for promotion, we get overlooked for development opportunities, they don't think of us when there's opportunities to be part of some innovative creative team. We're not part of the collaboration that's happening.

In the long term, we just become known as the workers that are good at what we're currently doing, and that's career-limiting.

On the personal front, we're really putting ourselves at higher risk of burnout because now we're responsible for managing our work time. And we wind up working an average of 10 per cent more per week when you work from home than when you work from the office. 

CN: From an employer's standpoint, what should be the rules around daily start and stop times?

NC: I'm a big fan of core hours. Which means that, regardless of whether someone's in the office, they're working from home, or in some third party location, everyone's in the office for the same standard 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Then you have some flexibility — you could have some people start a bit earlier, start a bit later, but the way we can collaborate and remember who else is at work is to make sure we're working at roughly the same time our colleagues are working.

CN: There are some people working from home who might like the idea of a relaxed, flexible start time. You take a longer lunch and you can work a couple of extra hours in the evening. What about from an employee's point of view?

NC: From an employee's point of view, we have to remember: the people who are working from home are often the ones who are doing high-level cognitive work. These are people whose tools to do their work is their brains, their computer, the Internet. Well, those people have a harder time checking out when they prolong and extend their workday by taking those big breaks in the middle.

For example, I have a colleague who starts work at 7 a.m. and ends work at 10 p.m., because in the middle of the day she takes two, two-hour breaks. And by Thursday, she's not sleeping well, she's not eating well, she's a bit of a mess. And that's just by Thursday — think about a year, or two years into it.

CN: How do employees make sure they aren't stalling professionally while working from home?

NC: We really need to start advocating for ourselves. One of the ways that we can overcome being overlooked for promotion is to actually be quite vocal about the fact that we want a career map. We want to take a career opportunity that may be offered internally in the company or maybe outside of the company.

If I start offering growth opportunities, I signal to my employer that I'm interested in not just maintaining the status quo in this one job, but that I'm interested in learning something new, doing a lateral move, joining a new team. It's up to me to signal that as the employee.

CN: We keep hearing, "This is the new normal." We keep seeing places like Shopify and Twitter — they've gone to working from home permanently. How serious should we be when we're thinking about work from home as a potentially permanent thing?

NC: It sounds great that we can work from home, but the truth is that innovation, creativity, collaboration, still happens in very informal ways. It happens when you're sitting with someone and picking up an idea from them and moving to another person. Many companies are asking their top talent to come back into the office.

Personally, I would want to be part of that group. 

Companies can't sustain the status quo and go completely remote without innovation. The leader, the pioneer in innovation was IBM, and they cancelled their program and called everybody back to their offices in 2017 because they said they were missing the creativity and the innovation. So they were feeling it. I don't know how long it is before these smaller companies feel it.

The commute is gone, you're home from work early, and figuring out what to wear every day isn't an issue. But working from home also has some large downsides, including burnout and career challenges that may have long lasting impact. Management expert Nita Chhinzer from the University of Guelph says step back and closely examine your work from home habits 6:32

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