About 8 million people–or around 5% of the U.S. workforce–worked from home all of the time in 2017. Since then, the number of people who work from home has increased drastically. This is partly due to technological advancements that has made remote work easier on both employees and employers. However, the shift to remote work was largely driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Pew Research, only one-fifth of the workforce worked remotely in early 2020. Then, the pandemic hit. Local governments issued lockdown and stay-at-home orders that forced employers around the world to temporarily close their doors. This left employers with no other choice but to allow workers to work remotely. As a result, over 70% of workers were working from home at the height of the pandemic.
The stay-at-home and lockdown orders are no longer in effect, but most employers are still allowing their employees to work from home. In San Francisco, for example, only 19% of workers have returned to their pre-pandemic workplace. This delay in bringing workers back to the office has led many experts to wonder whether remote work will become the new normal even after the pandemic has ended. What are the pros and cons of working remotely? What should workers expect in the future? Here’s what you should know:
The Benefits of Remote Work
Employees can benefit from working remotely in a number of ways, including:
- Flexibility. Remote workers are usually allowed to work more flexible schedules, which makes it easier for workers to balance their work and family obligations.
- Increases overall satisfaction. Studies show that employees who work remotely are happier with their jobs than employees who are not given the option to work from home.
- No commute. Employees who work from home won’t have to deal with the hassle of commuting to work. This saves remote workers a significant amount of time and money.
- Better work environment. Remote workers are in control of their at-home workplace, so they can create an environment that suits their working style.
Employees aren’t the only ones who benefit from remote work. Remote work can also benefit employers in many ways, including:
- Fewer costs. Employers won’t have to pay for office space if they allow their employees to work remotely. This could save employers thousands–or in some cases, millions–of dollars per year.
- More productive employees. Employers used to worry that productivity would suffer if employees were allowed to work remotely, but that’s not the case. Multiple studies have confirmed that working remotely can actually improve employee productivity.
- A diverse pool of job candidates. Employers that allow their employees to work remotely are no longer limited to hiring job candidates in their area. This means they can choose from a larger pool of candidates, which makes it easier to find someone who is perfect for the job.
The Drawbacks of Remote Work
Remote work may seem ideal, but there are some drawbacks to working from home, including:
- Working in isolation. Some employees may find working from home isolating and lonely, whereas others may thrive in this type of environment.
- Not an option for everyone. Unfortunately, remote work is not a realistic option for people who work in certain fields, including healthcare, food service, public transportation, retail, and personal care.
- Too many distractions. Employees who work from home may find it hard to focus on work if they cannot eliminate distractions in their at-home workplace. For example, it may be distracting if they have to share an at-home workspace with their spouse.
- Space constraints. Some remote workers, especially those in large cities, may not have enough space at home to create a comfortable work environment.
- Difficult to juggle work and childcare. Many remote workers found it difficult to juggle working at home and caring for their children during the pandemic.
- No distinction between personal/work life. Remote workers often struggle to keep their work life separate from their personal life when they work from home. As a result, they often end up working longer hours.
- Monitoring concerns. Employers often use monitoring software to keep track of what their remote employees are doing during work hours. Some employees may feel like this is a violation of their privacy.
How Working From Home Has Reshaped the Way People Work
Remote work has already started to reshape the way people work. Some of the biggest changes brought about by remote work include:
- Adoption of New Technologies
- New Approach to Meetings
- Impact On Internal Communication
Adoption of New Technologies
Several new technologies helped remote workers adjust to working from home rather than in an office.
Remote workers began using video and audio conferencing software to connect with their co-workers once they could no longer conduct in-person meetings. At Accenture, for example, remote workers turned to Microsoft Teams to communicate with one another while working remotely. Less than 10% of the company worked from home before the pandemic, so many Accenture employees were working remotely for the first time when COVID-19 occurred.
During the pandemic, the company’s remote workforce logged 900 million minutes of audio calls. Accenture’s remote workforce spent a great deal of time making video calls, too. The volume of these video calls increased sixfold over the course of the pandemic.
Technologies like these allowed employees to quickly adjust to their new working environment.
New Approach to Meetings
Prior to the pandemic, employees often complained about the amount of time they spent in meetings. Many employees found these meetings unnecessary and unproductive. Employers never addressed these concerns in the past, but the pandemic forced many of them to rethink how and when they conduct meetings.
Employers have replaced in-person meetings with video conferences, but there are a number of issues with this technology. There’s often a delay in the video feed, so attendees may accidentally speak over one another or interrupt someone. Plus, many employees think it’s uncomfortable to stare at their co-workers on a computer screen for an extended period of time.
Due to these issues, employers are slowly becoming more mindful of scheduling meetings. Many employers now only schedule meetings for important matters and only invite the people who actually need to be there. Because of this, remote workers are attending fewer formal meetings with their co-workers. However, they are still able to keep the lines of communication open via instant messaging services.
Impact on Internal Communication
Employees who work in an office may start a conversation with someone who they bump into in the hallway or elevator. However, it takes a lot more effort to initiate a conversation with a co-worker when you’re working remotely.
Researchers conducted a study using Hymanyze software, which was built to assess the state of internal communication within a company. The software is programmed to categorize every contact as a strong tie or weak tie. If an employee talks to someone on a regular basis, they are classified as a strong tie. But if an employee talks to someone for fewer than 15 minutes per week, they are considered a weak tie.
Before the pandemic, employees spent about half of their time communicating with their strong ties. Once the pandemic hit, employees spent about 60% of their time communicating with these contacts. This means working remotely actually strengthened the connection between strong ties.
However, communication with weak ties was negatively impacted by the shift to remote work. Researchers found that communication with these contacts decreased by more than 30%. This could potentially alienate some people and make it harder for remote workers to build relationships with co-workers.
What to Expect in the Future
There’s no question that remote work has already made a major impact on the way people work. But are these changes permanent or will employees eventually return to working in a normal, pre-pandemic office environment?
Many experts believe that things will never go back to “business as usual.” In other words, these experts predict that employers will recognize the benefits of remote work and allow their employees to permanently work from home.
These experts may be right. In fact, a number of companies including Atlassian, Twitter, and Shopify, have already decided to make the shift to remote work permanent. Even Facebook, which employs nearly 60,000 people, expects at least half of their workforce to be fully remote within the next five years.
But some experts don’t agree with this prediction. Instead, they believe that employers will offer employees a hybrid home/office arrangement that allows them to spend half of their time at home and the other half in an office.
The hybrid home/office solution would allow workers to experience the best of both worlds. They would enjoy the benefits of working in an office, such as being able to communicate face-to-face with co-workers, in addition to the benefits of working from home.
Research shows that this hybrid arrangement could actually make employees happier, too. Studies show that a worker’s happiness and the amount of time they spend working at home are positively correlated. However, this correlation stops once the worker reaches 15 hours of remote work per week. After 15 hours, the worker’s happiness plateaus regardless of how many more hours they spend working remotely.