Why Remote Work Has A Complicated Future


How Has Remote Work Benefited The Workforce?

Remote work has already begun to change the workforce, some for better, some for worse.  It is challenging however to find how to best implement it in tomorrow’s workplace, and specifically to glean the most desirable aspects of it.  Surveys showed the number one purpose of the office, according to employers, was to increase productivity.  However, new data suggests a majority of people may in fact work better from home, maintain a better work-life balance, and be better financially for both the employer and employee alike. 

Owl labs found a microscopic 1% of employees felt less productive during the pandemic, and around a third said they would be willing to take a pay cut of over 10% to be able to continue working at home part of the time in the future.  This would save employers money on multiple fronts, providing a cost-saving measure particularly useful to avoid laying off employees in economic contractions.

Interestingly, over half of employees reported they worked more hours than at the office, which may explain in part why they feel productivity is so high.  This does create the question as to why employees who are self-reportedly working longer and are more productive at home seem willing to take a pay cut to do so, as one would expect the opposite effect.

Work-life balance can also be assisted by the ability to accomplish the numerous daily tasks a person must finish at their residence during the day, taking a few minutes to start laundry or keep their cat or dog company.  Having more freedom to do what they want to on their own schedule is a useful way for employees to feel they have more control over their lives and manage the way they best see fit to do so, rather than working in the time confines set by the office time demands of their employer.

The financial part of the equation may be the most promising as well as intriguing of them all.  While the average income of remote workers is around $4,000 higher than non-remote workers, this is mostly due to remote workers holding higher positions, in reality there is probably very little difference in earnings.  However, what is undeniable is that remote workers save money from working from home, and not a small amount either:  between transportation, food, and childcare, around $7,000.  This is a likely source of how as discussed above, employees were willing to accept pay cuts, as they would still be earning roughly the same in the end.  The benefits of this as a cost-saving measure for a tight economy have not been studied, but on its face are quite promising.  Further, companies can save around $2,000 per employee, primarily with cost savings in office space.


What are the Downsides and Unknown Consequences?

But with that said, can company culture survive with employees not seeing each other frequently, and would the two-way financial gain outweigh whatever long-term effects this brings?   

Employees who do not feel close ties to other employees are far more likely to feel the job is transactional causing higher turnover rates, and the long-term effects of this are unknown though unlikely to benefit companies.  Of note, employees already working from home feel remote work is less of a threat to company culture than currently on-site workers.

While it is difficult to measure “company culture,” it is evident remoteness poses multiple challenges to it.  Without daily interactions with fellow employees, especially non-work related interactions, employees struggle to engage with one another and feel less motivated, harming productivity and increasing burnout.  Over the relatively short duration COVID sent workers to their homes, these consequences may not have played out in full.  Workers online still knew their fellow employees and had the same relationships as before.  The real question is whether or not this could last in the long term.

And while certain groups have found better work-life balance, there is also evidence to the contrary.  It’s hypothesized that working from home can blur the line between work and home-life, requiring extra attention to be paid in separating the two.  Those that have a work-specific room in their residence are fortunate but atypical, with most remote workers using their kitchen or living room as a workplace.  For anyone with family members around during the day, these also may not be an option due to sound or distractions, requiring them to end up working in their bedroom.

The largest potential consequence is a lack of interconnectedness having long-term negative trends on company growth due to increased coordination time.  Most everyone is familiar with reaching out to someone for a project or piece of information and waiting for a response, holding up progress, whereas a shared workspace allows for easily finding and communicating the requisite information.  


To What Extent Is Remote Work Here to Stay?

Before 2020, only around 6% of employees primarily or entirely worked from home.   By April, that number peaked at about 7 in 10 Americans partially or completely working from home.  Two years on from then, that number has continued to dwindle, but even by 2025 it is projected almost a quarter of all employees will be working remotely.  

Gallup polling data provides a deeper look into the statistics, showing that this shift towards remote work aligns with the desires of employees, with an overwhelming 91% of employees hoping to maintain remote work abilities going forward.  This is split between 54% wanting to enjoy a hybrid set-up, with 37% preferring to stay at home full-time to work.  All together, it is easy to see remote work will affect the workforce of tomorrow in some way.


What Does the Future of Remote Work Look Like?

Part of the issue with evaluating remote work is the amount of seemingly contradictory data that has been collected thus far.  Two polls asking the same question can get wildly different responses, and the questions that do get consensus don’t align with other questions.  Part of this, surely, is the relative novelty of remote work, and both people and researchers alike struggling to decide how they feel and how to inquire about that.  As such, we should be cautious in drawing any gargantuan conclusions, however certain things can yet be taken away.  

Foremost for employers, it is imperative to source employee feedback actively and more regularly than at the office instead of passively waiting for someone to come forward about an issue.  By the time that happens, the issue is already large enough to have been causing significant damage.  And as opposed to an office space where employers and other employees can identify physical cues in body language or how a person is acting, only seeing another person on occasion, usually online, makes it difficult to gauge whether or not an employee is experiencing burnout or dealing with personal issues.  And in the event certain people are feeling isolated, it may still be prudent to have some office space allotted to allow for more social employees to still go into, as employee production could otherwise suffer immensely as a result.  

At this point in time it seems that while remote work may have some promising uses and should be tested, it would be unwise to go all-in on having employees work from home.  The primary times it should be utilized are purely self-directed and self-contained tasks.  The more connections a person needs to complete a task and the more problems one could expect to run into, the better it would be to have that employee stay in an office space.  A consequence of this is to allow more veteran workers the opportunity to work from home while keeping newcomers in a shared space to learn how to conduct business, and remote work comes as a later benefit for loyalty, which may provide a solution to the aforementioned turnover rates.

The most important aspect on this topic going forward is to be attentive to what is working and what is not;  with little published literature on this topic before the last two years, it is risky to draw any large conclusions.  That said, a company which balances these factors correctly may find themselves in a position to redefine how business is conducted based on preliminary data.  COVID forced a rush to online business, so allowing a measured approach will certainly help remove many of the hiccups experienced along the way.