The narrative that COVID-19 accelerated existing trends in the workplace, such as adoption of digital tools, has been so pervasive that the statement is starting to become cliché. Although largely true, it is an oversimplification of what is actually happening. This is most notable in the adoption of remote work. Prior to COVID-19, employers were increasingly embracing remote and flexible work arrangements, largely because the pros significantly outweighed the cons. As the pandemic forced lockdowns in countries across the globe, employers were forced to have non-essential workers perform their roles outside of the office or facility. The result was not a boost in productivity and other benefits seen from pre-pandemic remote work studies.
Dr. Nicholas Bloom, a professor in the Department of Economics at Stanford University and the co-director of the Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at the National Bureau of Economic Research, is famous for his work on remote work. One of his most well-known pieces was a two-year study of a major Chinese travel company called Ctrip, which found that working from home made employees 13% more productive and 50% less likely to quit. Despite the positives of remote work uncovered from the study, Dr. Bloom is quick to note the current environment is quite different, especially in four areas: (i) children, (ii) space, (iii) privacy, and (iv) choice.
The pandemic’s impact on schools, daycare, and other establishments has resulted in employees having to manage the education and lives of their children while addressing the roles and responsibilities of their jobs. Most working parents can relate to the moment when their child decided to unexpectedly join their Zoom call. These challenges drive productivity lower through distractions as well as increased stress from having to manage so many things. Although schools and such will eventually open, the short-term impact is undoubtedly and adversely impacting performance. To address this issue, many employers are expanding caregiver benefits to help offset the burden working parents are experiencing.
In the Ctrip study, employees were only allowed to work remotely if they had a home office. The home office could not be a bedroom, and no one else was allowed into the room during the workday. The pandemic caught most employers and employees off-guard, so the vast majority of these newly remote workers did not have time to prepare. As a result, many of them are working from bedrooms or shared common rooms and often without proper equipment, such as an ergonomically friendly desk and chair and proper internet connectivity. These sub-optimal work environments do not foster the productivity gains often associated with remote work. Some employers are offering office stipends to offset the costs of furniture and other productivity-enhancing tools. In the post-pandemic world, employers will either need to bring employees back into the office or ensure they have the set-ups at home for success.
Many employees work with sensitive data, and the processes and procedures to access and protect data were not established by many companies prior to the pandemic. As a result, employers have either become laxer with the security protocols or have put in procedures that hamper productivity. Like many of the other challenges with remote work, they can be resolved but not overnight. Employers that want to commit to remote work in the future will need to invest in the infrastructure to remain compliant while not hindering performance.
Remote work is not for everyone, and prior to the pandemic, employees chose to work remotely. In general, this meant that the individuals best suited for this work arrangement self-selected into it. The current environment forced everyone to work remotely, with no consideration for the job function or personal preferences. There is a lot of conversation about the future of work becoming predominantly or completely remote, but this does not take into account that most or all employees may not thrive in this environment.
No one truly knows what the future of work will be, but it is important to note the things employers lose with 100% remote employees. For example, in-person collaboration is necessary for creativity. Research from Dr. Bloom has shown that face-to-face meetings are essential for developing new ideas and keeping staff motivated and focused. He would argue “the inventions we're losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth.” It is also important to note that remote work is not an all-or-nothing proposition. That is, employees can work remotely part of the time, which allows employers and employees to gain the benefits of on-site and remote work arrangements.
Despite the current challenges, one thing is for certain. The pandemic removed the negative stigma often associated with remote work. That alone should make much of the shift in remote work permanent. As remote work increases in the long-term, employers will need to update all aspects of their business to adapt to it, including benefits, recruiting, security protocols, and more.