If you jump into a discussion about the future of remote work after COVID-19, someone is sure to say, The cat’s out of the bag.
They wouldn’t be wrong. At the height of the pandemic, Gallup polled people who were working remotely about their plans for the future. Only a quarter said they want to return to an office or workspace. Half of the respondents said that if it were up to them, they would continue to work from home. If employees have anything to say about it, remote work is here to stay.
The rapid transition to remote work opened a window into a possible workplace future that many employees wanted but few employers were ready to embrace. The 2019 State of Remote Work report by OWL Labs found that 81% of on-site employees want or may want to work remotely. And now, the cat is definitely out of the bag: remote work didn’t destroy organizations. Employees didn’t sit at home all day and play video games. In fact, in the midst of extraordinarily unconducive circumstances, they did the work that needed to be done.
So what happens next?
Companies, government agencies, non-profit organizations—and even individuals—will all have to grapple with how remote work will factor into their new workplace. Because even for organizations that want to return to the office, there is no going back to the way it was.
Before the pandemic, about 30% of employees in the United States worked remotely full-time. Those lucky few enjoyed flexibility coveted by many, especially those in the millennial workforce. Websites and companies sprung up focused entirely on helping people find remote work. People wanted the flexibility to travel, stay home with their kids, go to the gym in the middle of the day, or work in their pajamas.
In many organizations, working remotely was a privilege afforded to those who reached a certain seniority level or adequately justified their need to work elsewhere.
COVID-19 turned this system on its head. Since the beginning of the pandemic, employers and employees have had to provide justification for having people not work remotely. Gartner estimates that almost half of employees will continue working remotely after businesses fully reopen.
Of course, many jobs can’t be done remotely, especially those in the service industries. While the conversation around remote work can sound like a discussion about the future of all work, that’s not the case. No matter how many jobs go (or stay) remote in the coming months and years, there will always be positions that must remain in an office setting or an otherwise physical location.
However, there may be far fewer of those positions than many employers had initially believed.
In the last few months, both employers and employees have pushed through any resistance they had to remote work.
Historically, one of the primary barriers for employers has been discomfort with the lack of oversight. Many employers worried about employee productivity in settings without managerial supervision. Being forced into a remote work situation has shown many employers that their employees can get results working from home. Perhaps they learned what many studies have shown: remote workers are often more productive than their in-office counterparts. A 2020 Gartner study showed that remote workers show higher levels of discretionary effort and higher enterprise contribution, meaning they not only perform their tasks but also contribute to others’ performance.
Managers that were concerned about their ability to encourage collaboration, monitor employee productivity, and maintain a connection to their team have found ways to do all three. By using cloud-based tools and implementing remote work best practices, some have realized improvements in their productivity and relationships with employees.
Companies that have long been creating services for remote workforces have stepped into the current situation ready to provide support—from video conferencing and whiteboard collaboration to virtual addresses and home-based ergonomic workstations.
Organizations that envisioned remote work somewhere in the distant future now see the immediate possibilities, regardless of a pandemic.
According to Gallup’s poll, even employees who would be interested in returning to an office environment are hesitant to do so because of continued concerns about the novel coronavirus—or any future pandemic. Employees aren’t alone in their worries. A company’s ability to handle a suddenly remote workforce is very different from its ability to handle a sick and highly contagious one.
Experts are already weighing in about the increased danger of open-concept offices, still highly popular in many office buildings. Even issues like elevators, shared kitchen spaces, and ventilation systems may need to be addressed. For some companies, creating a safe office environment may prove more challenging than transitioning to a remote workforce.
Even organizations that were previously resistant to remote work are beginning to see how it might provide value to their bottom line and their employees.
Take advantage of cost savings from reduced office space. Allowing employees to work from home can reduce or eliminate the expense of office space, creating significant cost savings. Employers are exploring many different options, from closing down the office entirely to reducing workspace and scheduling alternating “in-office” days. One employer is considering designating one day a week as a company-wide in-office day so that people can have meetings and do things that may need to be done in person. In this arrangement, a company could maintain a significantly smaller space and still have physical headquarters.
Access broader talent pools. Once companies get over the hump of remote work resistance, they realize that employing remote workers significantly increases their talent pool. Depending on an organization’s geographic location, hiring in other areas could also reduce payroll expenses. For instance, companies in New York City could offer salaries that someone in a less expensive community would happily accept but would be insufficient for an employee attempting to rent a New York City apartment.
Reduce employee attrition and develop more productive workforces
. According to Owl Lab’s 2019 Report on Remote Work, “workers who work remotely, at least some of the time, are happier, feel more trusted, less stressed, are more inclined to recommend their employer to a friend, and are less likely to leave than their [office-bound] colleagues.” On-site workers report working longer hours because it’s required, and more remote workers say they’re doing so because they enjoy their work.
The conversation around the future of remote work from an employee perspective has centered around work-life balance. That’s a frequently-cited benefit, but survey data suggests that there’s a lot to like about being a remote employee.
Enjoy both geographic and temporal flexibility. Remote workers can often work where they want and sometimes even when they want. This isn’t just about the digital nomad lifestyle where a remote worker is logging onto their email from a hut on the beach (although that’s certainly one element of it). Remote work allows someone who can’t afford to live in New York City to take a job with a major publishing company. A marketing executive who needs to move back to her hometown to care for aging parents isn’t limited by the job opportunities there.
Reduce commuting time. One of the most-cited reasons for wanting to work remotely is eliminating a daily commute. The average American spends almost an hour commuting to and from work every day, over 200 hours commuting each year. During the pandemic, people have been able to use those hours of returned time to get more work done, hang out with their families, take up new hobbies, or get a bit more sleep.
Reduce friction between work and home responsibilities. Someone who works from home can take a few minutes after a conference call to pop a load of laundry into the washing machine. They can walk the dog while they’re on a client call. Especially for working parents, the ability to intersperse the workday with quick tasks can make evenings with kids more relaxed and enjoyable.
Since the COVID-19 crisis began, organizations and their employees have learned on the job—how to use cloud-based file-sharing programs, collaborate with colleagues over video calls, manage employee productivity through email and Slack, and hire and onboard without in-office interviews.
They’re more prepared than ever to make this transition. However, companies may need to replace interim measures with longer-term solutions.
The pandemic drove a rapid shift to remote work, and it did so without the need for nuanced decisions about the details of a company’s remote work policies. Anyone able to do their work remotely was expected to do so.
As the economy reopens, companies will need to define their guidelines and protocols for remote work. A few key questions can guide that process:
Will the default working environment be home or office? Do employees need to request the ability to work remotely?
Will remote work be available equally to all employees, or do options need to be individualized for specific roles?
Do remote employees need to be “at work” at particular times during the day?
What tools and metrics can be used to measure employee productivity and performance?
How will the organization maintain continuity and connection between in-office employees and remote employees?
The landscape has changed. Employees have gotten a sneak preview of working remotely, and many will not want to go back. Companies that capitalize on that new reality will have a significant competitive advantage over those attempting to return to “business as usual."
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