Is Remote Work Here to Stay?
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, asking the question,“is remote work here to stay?” can feel moot. With seemingly every news source proclaiming remote work to be the new normal, the answer looks like a resounding “yes.”
And it’s not just a gut feeling. Remote work trends are in a dramatic upswing. In an article aptly titled “Coronavirus Makes Work from Home the New Normal,” the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that, as of mid-March, 2020, over half of employers surveyed were allowing employees who didn’t do so normally to work remotely.
This isn’t surprising considering shelter-in-place and social distancing measures, but it raises two big questions: how are these employees going to feel about working remotely when the pandemic is over? And how are employers going to handle the pressure to allow more flexibility?
Even before the response to COVID-19 began, an overwhelming majority of workers were expressing their desire for more flexibility. Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work reports 99 percent of respondents “said they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.”
So, with remote work now in place and the pressure to keep it there appearing on the horizon, the more relevant questions might be about organizational fit and benefits. How do you know if remote work is right for your business? What will flexible workplace options do for your organization?
Remote Work Trends
Estimates for the future clearly indicate that remote work is here for good, whether that’s strictly working from home or other forms of telecommuting. In a survey dated March 30, 2020, research firm Gartner found that 74 percent of CFOs plan on permanently moving five percent or more of in-office employees to remote positions post-COVID-19.
Big tech firms like Facebook, Twitter, and Square are among those leading this trend in remote work. All three have announced they are allowing employees to work from home indefinitely, with Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, adding that he intends to move over half of Facebook employees to working from home over the next decade.
Compared to pre-pandemic numbers, the increase in people working from home is likely to be exponential. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that in 2018, employees who worked from home more than half of the time accounted for only around 3.6 percent of the workforce. GWA predicts that this number will increase to at least 25 percent by the end of 2021.
This data suggests two likely scenarios. First, more traditional mindsets that dismiss remote work as unproductive will likely be upended by the sheer number of workers and companies adopting and normalizing remote work. Second, more people working from home will make it an expected benefit for job candidates, so you may get left behind without it.
Remote Work Is Here for Good, but Is It Always Right?
Just because everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon of remote work doesn’t necessarily mean that your organization will have to. In the same vein, just because you’ve had an emergency work-from-home policy in place doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t revisit it once the emergency is over.
When Remote Work Might Be Right
As an HR professional, you’re probably familiar with remote and flexible work arrangements and you’ve likely heard about their numerous benefits:
- Lower overhead costs
- Decreased attrition
- Higher employee satisfaction
- Greater productivity
- And more
The efficacy of remote work arrangements, however, depends a lot on the type of work to be accomplished and the experience and personality of each employee.
Productivity, for example, is highly dependent on the work being performed; when a job is more or less the same thing day-in and day-out, remote work can increase productivity among employees. Stanford University conducted a study among call center employees at a Chinese travel company. Researchers found a 13 percent increase in productivity and a 50 percent decrease in turnover within the group that worked from home.
While this study reflects the benefits for a call center, a flexible workplace policy can also benefit employees in knowledge or creative positions. It just takes the right kind of management and engagement strategies plus the right kind of worker.
Alex Turnbull of Groove HQ, where the entire workforce is remote, has learned over the years that not everyone is cut out for such a self-starter work environment. He writes, “Remote working is a skill like any other, and sometimes an employee who isn’t at their best simply hasn’t focused on working on that skill yet. But sometimes, it’s simply a case of temperament or preference. In these cases, those folks are better off not working remotely.”
If you are confident that your team is made up of reliable, experienced, and independent workers, then maybe a remote solution is for you as it could boost the performance and job satisfaction of your team members.
When Remote Work Might Not Be Right
The most common argument against flexible workplace policies is the decrease in “water cooler” talk that happens every day amongst team members. While a five-minute discussion about the big game last night might not seem productive in the strictest sense, it can strengthen bonds between employees and provide necessary, natural distractions from the workflow.
Collaborative problem solving often happens side-by-side with casual jokes and conversations. In fact, informal communication is linked to increased productivity within a group. It’s difficult to recreate that same kind of spontaneous chit-chat when everyone is separated by a computer screen and a few (or a few hundred) miles.
Another important factor that Turnbull alludes to is personal preference and temperament. Some people just aren’t going to do well in an isolated working environment, no matter how much it cuts down on their commute. Stanford University’s study on remote work bears this out. After a nine-month trial period, half of the original volunteers requested to return to the office because they missed the camaraderie and social company.
Physical proximity and casual exchanges are often the best ways to foster collaboration, creativity, and engagement. Trends in remote work aside, if your company thrives on this type of spontaneous, organic collaboration between employees, then a full exodus to remote work might not be the best idea. Forcing employees to work from home who prefer not to and who perform better when working in the office will also backfire.
More People Are Working from Home, but Should You?
Still wondering if taking the plunge is right for your organization? There could be a compromise to keep everyone happy.
First of all, there’s no need to make sweeping changes right away. If you haven’t had to put in any remote work policies, try testing with a select group of employees or for a specific period of time.
You can also experiment with allowing employees to work a couple days a week from home. Nicholas Bloom, the professor involved with the Stanford study, insists that “a good rule of thumb is to let employees have one to two days a week at home. It’s hugely beneficial to their well-being, helps you attract talent, and lowers attrition.”
Finally, if you can define what it means for an employee to be successful and productive, you’ll have an easier time deciding whether working from home is working or not. Consider these questions:
- How do your employees measure up under normal circumstances?
- What improvements are you hoping to see from introducing a remote work option?
- Do your employees achieve these goals while working from home?
To determine these answers, you’ll need to look beyond simple numbers such as phone calls completed or forms submitted. You will also need a combination of time tracking, performance management, and more tools that allow you to measure abstract data such as employee satisfaction.
Remote work trends tell a compelling story. Employees have a strong desire to have more flexibility in their work life. These trends also show without a doubt that for an increasing number of organizations and employees, remote work is here for good, pandemic or post-pandemic. Whatever your organization has previously done and whatever its reasons for doing so, you will need to address this unmistakable shift in working habits and create a plan that works for both the business and your people.