Remote Working Pros & Cons: Lessons For Post-Pandemic

  • Ezra
  • September 7th, 2020

After years of demanding to work from home, the COVID-19 pandemic finally delivered: millions of workers around the world were forced to retreat from their company offices into their homes as the deadly novel coronavirus raced across the planet.

After we all got what we wanted, everyone is happy, right? Well…not exactly.

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Increasingly, we’re seeing evidence the reality of working from home (WFH) has turned out to be a lot different than the fantasy many of us had.

With the pandemic still representing an immediate threat, no one is quite sure when – or if – we’re going to return to the traditional office environment. What does that mean for the future of work? To answer that question, we need to look at the pre-pandemic context of remote working.

The pre-pandemic allure of WFH

Pre-pandemic studies found that many employers were interested in remote working options as a way of retaining top talent. WFH was generally thought to be a way of lowering absenteeism and illness, while improving quality and productivity. Working people also wanted the option to work from home. And, in fact, that many were already doing that.

Many surveys in many different countries around the world showed that about 80 per cent of all working people wanted the option to work at home at least some of the time. Gallup, which produces a wealth of data on WFH attitudes, found in late 2019 survey that more than half of American workers would change jobs for the opportunity to work remotely some of the time.

It’s important to remember, however, that much of this research was done before millions of people around the world were forced into WFH situations that had significantly different conditions than the pre-pandemic period.

The impact of COVID-19

Simply put, the WFH situation we faced this year was not the situation envisioned by employers and employees in the pre-pandemic period. First and foremost, almost no one predicted a massive transition of workers to the home-based office, with all of the accompanying technological and family complications.

For example, we can be reasonably sure that no one envisioned multiple people working from home and competing for space at the dining room table. And those studies certainly did not consider the complicating presence of children, who were driven from their classrooms at the same time offices were being shuttered.

Finally, most of the pre-pandemic studies linked interest in WFH with the opportunity to have the best of both worlds: stay home for work, with the option go into the office from time to time to reconnect with managers and co-workers.

Lamentably, and for the time being, remote working is an all-or-nothing proposition with no hybrid option. That will no doubt change some attitudes towards the whole idea of working from home.

Given all that, is WFH really the future of work?

The most important point anyone can make in this debate is that we don’t have enough data to make a firm prediction on the future of WFH. But that data is starting to bubble to the surface.

A July 2020 post by a Google employee on Blind, an anonymous online network for IT professionals, asked if remote working was having an impact on mental health. More than 9,000 people responded, with two thirds agreeing that their mental health had suffered from remote work being forced upon them. That number jumped to more than 80 per cent for employees at organizations such as Yelp, Facebook, PayPal and Yahoo.

In August, Blind followed up with another poll where 42 per cent of respondents have reported feeling more stressed in a WFH environment while 29 per cent said they were less productive. Of greater interest, 55 per cent of the people who responded to the poll said they miss going into a physical office.

It’s worth noting that there are other polls, surveys and studies that provide other data points that claim WFH has been very popular and successful. But the Blind results do mirror a longer-term trend in the grand WFH experiment: the longer it goes on, the less popular it becomes for both employee and employer.

There were quite a few people ready to lambaste former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer in 2013 when she famously told her employees they could no longer work from home. But Mayer was really at the forefront of a growing trend.

In 2017, after years of boasting about how up to 40 per cent of its employees worked remotely, IBM issued a broad directive recalling its people to the office. This happened after Big Blue suffered 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue. By the end of that decade, a number of iconic global brands – Bank of America, Yahoo, AT&T and Reddit – had recalled all or at least some of their remote employees.

The allure of WFH will likely continue beyond the influence of the pandemic. Environmentalists have already calculated the cumulative reduction in greenhouse gasses from the reduction in people commuting to work. And employers are similarly doing the calculus around savings in commercial real estate and office equipment.

Most importantly, if and when COVID-19 eases, remote workers may find they are able to enjoy a pre-pandemic WFH environment where they no longer have to compete with school-age children for Wi-Fi bandwidth.

In other words, the story of WFH has not yet been completely written. The pandemic is merely helping us to sketch out the next chapter.

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