What many thought might be only a short-term adjustment looks increasingly permanent.
In the two decades prior to COVID-19, remote work was continuing to grow at a fairly slow and steady pace, yet it still remained a small portion of the workforce. Then came March 2020, when the world flipped over on its bum, transforming kitchens, bedrooms and home offices of tens of millions of Americans into corporate real estate.
What many thought might be only a short-term adjustment looks increasingly permanent. As of September, almost 50% of Americans are working from home either full or part time. By the end of 2021(and COVID-19), Global Workplace Analytics predicts that 25 to 30 percent of the US workforce will continue to work remotely at least multiple times a week.
This is a seismic shift in business and work culture that never gained much momentum over the years, primarily because many executives feared a lack of employee productivity when working remotely. Then COVID-19 forced business leaders to face those fears head on. Now, headline after headline highlights companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Slack, Twitter, Uber, and American Express all announcing plans to extend and reform their remote policies to accommodate extended or indefinite remote work. Most employees are hoping this will be a new age of flexible remote work options, even after the pandemic subsides.
But before we celebrate the arrival of perceived employment Nirvana, itâ€™s important to note there are a host of both positive and negative tradeoffs companies and their employees have to consider. Additional perspective and investigation are going to be needed to help the employers and employees adjust to a new way of doing business.
On the positive side, despite prior fears, remote work has been proven in many cases, to increase productivity, reduce operational expenses and give employers new tools for talent recruitment and retention. In addition, less commuting has reduced negative environmental impacts and shown companies how to bolster operational resiliency in the face of natural or man-made disasters.
That said, employers are struggling with other factors associated with business management. First and foremost, building a strong company culture in remote work settings can be challenging, inhibiting not only employees from having better employment experiences, but also reducing truly effective communication and collaboration that results from being physically together. Human connection and engagement are extremely difficult to achieve remotely. In addition, employers are also finding it harder to manage and measure the performance of remote employees and mitigate against cybersecurity risks.
For employees, remote work has proven to be a launching pad into professional autonomy, permitting greater flexibility to set the working hours and physical conditions that are most important to them. This can lead to greater job and life satisfaction and improve their physical and mental well-being. Less commuting means more time for hobbies and family, as well as significantly lower work-related expenses. Some have even used the new flexibility to move to areas with more affordable housing, and other living expenses.
In terms of negative trade-offs, employees are finding that remote employment also tends to erode the boundary between work and life with workplace communication tools invading our personal spaces at home. Given the central role work plays in most peoplesâ€™ social lives, the rise of remote work can lead to a loss of social contact, and in some cases, result in loneliness. And, as most are familiar with by now, thereâ€™s the painful phenomenon known as â€œZoom fatigueâ€, which is very real and can be debilitating.
There are also several technology challenges for businesses to consider. Broadband access can be a challenge for millions of Americans and, on top of that, many also lack access to personal computers at home. Some employees also have insufficient space in their homes to do their work comfortably, which can significantly inhibit their performance.
At this point, we know very little about the long-term impact remote work will have on employees themselves. Much more research is needed looking at both the quantitative and qualitative effects of remote work. We canâ€™t get too far ahead of ourselves thinking this is the â€œWave of the Futureâ€, or the dreaded, â€œNew Normalâ€.
COVID-19 has changed everyoneâ€™s life in the U.S. dramatically and accelerated trends toward remote work that otherwise would have required decades to achieve. It will take many years to sort out and understand the effects of those changes and to learn how policy and practice need to change to accommodate these changes when it comes to work and career. As the cracks in remote work practices emerge, attention will be required to prevent businesses and its employees from falling through.