Remote Work: Where Do We Go From Here?

Remote work 2020

If you’re not working from home already, you may be soon. COVID-19 prompted a massive remote work experiment that could become the norm rather than the exception. Changing opinions about remote work, employee preferences and the lack of a COVID-19 vaccine are driving the trend.

Some states are dropping COVID-19 restrictions while others are rolling back partial closures. Even when offices reopen, it’s an open question whether employees will want to jump back in. As The New York Times Magazine pointed out in a June 9 article, it’s difficult to judge the sustainability of remote work during a pandemic.

Before the pandemic, about 25% of U.S. employees worked from home at least occasionally and 15 percent had regularly scheduled work-at-home days, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In an April Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey, 34% of 25,000 respondents had switched from on-site to off-site work.

In May, startup founders declared the ‘office is dead,’ Fast Company reported. Career experts and others we interviewed don’t think we’re seeing the end of offices. It’s likely, however, that companies will need less space as they move toward a blended model where employees split their time between their homes and offices.

While not everyone can work from home – notably health care workers, blue-collar workers and those who live in rural areas because of slow internet – the percentage of jobs that can be done from home is rising, according to a working paper from University of Chicago economists Jonathan Dingel and Brent Nieman. They estimate that 37% of U.S. jobs can be done from home.

Remote Work Becomes More Attractive

COVID-19 lockdowns showed employers that working from home is not only possible but also generally effective. Concerns about declining productivity and work quality were generally unfounded, according to a Global Workplace Analytics/Iometrics survey of 2,865 participants in March and April. Seventy percent of leaders said work from home is the same or better for employee performance, on average.

“I see many leaders who were maybe against remote work prior to COVID saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad. Maybe we could do a little bit more,’” says Tim Schumm, president of Lucas James Talent Partners in Wheaton, Illinois. “It’s opening up conversation to the pros and cons of a remote work environment.”

Several executives announced plans to increase the number of employees who work outside offices. Twitter is letting employees work from home forever if they choose to. At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg said he expects up to 50% of his workforce to be doing their jobs remotely in as little as five years. Nationwide Insurance shifted to remote work for the majority of its employees at the pandemic’s outset and has announced that about 30% of its 28,000 employees will continue working remotely.

In May, a Society of Human Resource (HR) Management survey of 1,000 HR professionals found similar trends favoring remote work. Sixty-eight percent of HR professionals said they would likely adopt more flexible work-from-home policies.

Hybrid Approach Likely Bet

As we reported last September about remote work, organizations that shift away from offices typically lean into a hybrid office/remote model. Research shows employees prefer to go to their offices two to three days and work remotely for the remaining time. The key behind this choice is collaboration. Employees say they need face time with their coworkers. When they’re face to face, people form bonds that can’t be replicated with videoconferencing.

Global Workplace Analytics research backs this up. Employees believe they perform equally well at home as they do in their offices, but they’re more satisfied collaborating in person, the organization found.

“I really like to be around the people I work with,” says Kristin Reynolds, vice president, brand strategy and creative, at the American Medical Association. “It helps me stay connected and focused.”

“Even if they want to go back to the office, the fear around catching the virus … trumps the urge or the need to go back into an office setting.”

Tim Schumm, president, Lucas James Talent Partners

But there’s a big deterrent. Social distancing, face masks, closed conference rooms and cafeterias, and fears around crowded elevators and shared desks may keep employees home for the near term. Without a vaccine, workers whose offices are in city high rises and have large numbers of employees who commute via mass transit will be more reluctant to return in a pandemic than those who work in single-occupancy buildings and drive to work.

“Even if they want to go back to the office, the fear around catching the virus and passing it to other people and loved ones trumps the urge or the need to go back into an office setting,” Schumm says.

Seek Employee Feedback

With COVID-19 spiking in many states and no vaccine on the immediate horizon, it’s vital to maintain communication about plans for reopening offices. Employees need to feel they’re being kept in the loop about decisions that will affect them at each step of the way.

Take their pulse about returning to their offices. How comfortable are they about going back? What would make them feel safe? Are they interested in working remotely for the long term if that option were available? How do they feel about commuting? How will child care affect their decisions? If schools remain closed because of COVID-19, parents who must return to their offices will face unique challenges.

Employees must also understand that even if they return, their offices might never be the same. What might they look like? Picture temperature checks, occupancy restrictions, physical distancing of at least 6 feet between employees, few or no in-person meetings, closed conference rooms, no communal dining, staggered shifts, one-way paths, and so on.

Downsides of Remote Work

Research finds that with remote work, productivity often increases, but so do work hours. At home, employees feel like they must be connected and available all the time. Pandemic-related layoffs, furloughs and hiring freezes have compounded those fears. As workers juggle family commitments, child care, full-time work from home and health concerns, they’re complaining of burnout.

In Buffer’s 2020 remote work survey of 3,500 remote workers around the world, respondents cited prolonged isolation, and communication and collaboration challenges. As The New York Times Magazine noted, “Office work is more than just straightforward productivity. … “It also consists of the chemistry and workplace culture that comes from employees interacting all day. …”

“We all work at home and have an excellent culture that supports remote work so that no one feels isolated.”

John Brooke, director, national accounts, ThreatSwitch

A lack of in-person office time and opportunities to have dynamic conversations can stifle creativity and innovation. Interaction that employees might normally have over lunch or after work go by the wayside. That can also impede on company culture. It requires effort to motivate and engage remote employees. Remote teams benefit from real-time chats, events like “Wine Wednesdays” and Friday video lunches, team huddles and in-person company events once or twice a year.

“Our company has been 100 percent remote from the get-go,” says John Brooke, director, national accounts, at ThreatSwitch, a cloud-based security software company in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We all work at home and have an excellent culture that supports remote work so that no one feels isolated. Our CEO was very deliberate about that from the beginning.”

Remote Work Benefits Organizations

Companies that shift toward remote work permanently will reduce their real estate costs. Fewer employees in-house lets them downsize. In pricey markets like New York City and San Francisco, that could mean substantial savings. A typical company can save about $11,000 per year for every employee who works remotely 50% of the time, Lister says.

In April, Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economics professor said he thinks city centers will become more affordable because of decreased demand for office space. COVID-19 likely won’t spell the end of offices though. Bloom said he thinks companies will still want workers in offices part time, even after the pandemic. He added that having at least one day of in-office face time benefits employees.

Beyond real estate savings, employers that offer remote work have access to a seemingly endless talent pool. Organizations can recruit from anywhere rather than having to focus on local candidates. In addition, employees are looking for remote opportunities as COVID-19 fears linger. Job search engines have seen huge spikes in the search terms “remote” and “work from home.”

‘The Genie is Out of the Bottle’

Work-from-home demand will likely increase now that more employees have had a taste of it in the COVID-19 crisis, says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics.

“The genie is out of the bottle and it’s not likely to go back in,” she says. “Our prediction is that the longer people are required to work at home, the greater the adoption we’ll see when the dust settles.”

Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 25-30% of the U.S. workforce will continue working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.

“Forcing employees to go back to the office when they don’t want to because of a pandemic is making this situation more challenging,” Schumm says. “Some hybrid work-from-home/in-person interaction may be the best option in the long run.”

Remote Work Tools and Tips

When working from home, it can be a challenge to stay connected with coworkers, especially if you’re juggling child care, home schooling, Fluffy and Fido, and other demands. Don’t miss our pro tips for successful remote collaboration.

Finally, if you’re one of those who misses in-office face time, check out this interactive tool that recreates the office experience.

Now, to You

Is your company returning to the office this year? Are you increasing work-from-home opportunities? Let us know in the comments below.

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