COVID-19: Is Working from Home Working?

Social distancing measures implemented in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic upended the world of business, forcing many employees to embrace remote work. Although the stay-at-home restrictions have since been relaxed in many parts of the country and several workers have returned to on-site work, many employers have created long-term remote work policies to keep their staff working from home.

Large employers such as Facebook and Microsoft have extended their remote work policies to allow some of their employees to work off-site until next year. Other employers, including Mondelez, Barclays, and Nationwide Insurance are taking it up a notch by implementing a permanent shift to hybrid work models. Nationwide, for instance, says going forward, on-site work will only be limited to its four main corporate offices in Ohio, Iowa, Arizona, and San Antonio, with employees in other locations shifting to remote work.

But some critics have questioned the effectiveness of remote work, and whether it improves employee productivity and the bottom line for business owners or whether it is just a stopgap that will be done away with as soon as the pandemic resolves.

What employers and employees think

PwC surveyed 120 US company executives and 1,200 US workers between May 29 and June 4, 2020, to see if remote work was working. More than 70 percent of the respondents - who were from public and private institutions across tech, media, retail, and financial services - worked exclusively from home while 30 percent had a hybrid work pattern. The survey found that more than 73 percent of the executives considered remote work a success for their business, and more than 55 percent will adopt a long-term remote work policy.

Most of the employee respondents and executives reported an overall positive experience with remote work, citing improved focus and productivity, better workflow, better work-life balance, and lower stress levels as benefits of remote work. More than 44 percent of employees reported feeling more productive while working from home, with more than 98 percent adding that they’ll like to adopt remote work for the rest of their careers.

On the flip side, employers say remote work has had a positive impact on business success, also citing improved employer productivity and cost savings. The cost-benefit of remote work may win many more companies over, with research showing that an employer can save about $11,0000 per year for every person who works remotely half the time. According to the survey, more than 83 percent of employers, many of whom were previously hesitant about remote work, are now open to telework arrangements.

For many employees, the flexibility that comes with remote work is the key element in successful remote work. Workers say working from home allows them to structure their work schedules to times of the day that they feel most productive, with less fewer distractions to deal with compared to an office environment. Employees also report feeling more motivated as working from their home office allows a degree of autonomy. With employees working without supervision typical of the office setting, working from home may help to foster trust from employers, which further increases employee productivity.

Before transiting to a remote work model

Despite these countless benefits, employees still face some challenges with remote work. For most workers, unplugging from work is a major impediment to efficient remote work. Without defined work hours, people may have a tough time defining personal and professional time, making workers vulnerable to burnout. Further, the lack of physical interactions with colleagues may impact negatively on people’s wellbeing. Others cite the lack of required technology as a top issue hindering the success of remote work.

Employers also have their reservations about remote work. Some fear it may be difficult to manage employees who work from home, as may be the execution of employee development and skill enhancement plans. Further, employers feel that information security issues could be heightened by remote work. These problems may hinder the successful implementation of telework policy if managers do not set up measures to address them.

First, employers must recognize that remote work is not a one-size-fits-all model; flexibility for one worker may mean something different for another. Consequently, managers need to tailor work schedules based on the individual needs of an employee. Some tasks may be more challenging to execute remotely, potentially exposing these workers to higher stress levels and lower productivity levels if they are forced to work from home. On the other hand, while some jobs can be comfortably done remotely, it helps to model an employee’s work pattern based on what they find most effective for them. Some employees may prefer to work from home all the time, and others may prefer a hybrid arrangement, allowing them to work from home for some days in a week.

For those who work remotely, employers should adopt the right technology to ensure work runs efficiently. In the PwC survey, many respondents chose to continue working on-site despite being able to work remotely because their employers did not set up the required systems and infrastructure for remote work. Employers should provide their remote workers with access to the right materials, resources, technology, and support services to do their jobs effectively.

Finally, employers should focus on employee wellbeing. Many employees new to remote work may find it challenging adapting to telecommuting. To mitigate this, employers should create a clear division between personal and work time, as unclear work hours may heighten stress for remote workers and undermine their productivity. This clarity helps workers to unplug effectively and devote time to other activities.

Besides, working from home may leave may workers isolated, and lack of physical interactions may hurt their mental wellbeing. Managers need to create a sense of community within the remote workforce through virtual coffee breaks, regular virtual meetings, and frequent “check-ins” to maintain a worker-centric work culture.

Remote work: The new normal

The pandemic has undoubtedly revealed the need to revisit the work model, as it pushed millions of workers to adapt to remote work. As the economy reopens, many employers are considering making a permanent shift to remote work to leverage its numerous benefits. Although traditional office settings won’t be eliminated, the pandemic has indeed accelerated trends that will culminate in the new normal for work.