The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies to shift to a largely remote workforce. What managers might not have anticipated as they initiated this shift, however, is that an in-person workforce might never exist again on the scale that it did before the 2020 pandemic, and that businesses may actually benefit.
The New York Times Magazine reports that sales representatives at SoftBank Robotics used to spend days preparing for a 10-minute sales pitch to ensure that it went smoothly. Now, SoftBank’s Josh Harcus and his peers are “working so nervously, even neurotically, that productivity [has risen]” (Thompson, 2020). In addition, time saved from commuting and traveling is now being poured directly into the work. The consulting firm Accenture – a company with over half a million employees worldwide – also saw productivity rise in working-from-home conditions (Thompson, 2020).
These are promising indications of the staying power of the work-from-home paradigm; less time and energy are spent on practices that workers and managers alike are now realizing were wasteful all along. From Nationwide Insurance to Twitter, companies are laying the groundwork to allow their employees to continue remote work even after restrictions lift and it becomes possible to resume business as it existed before COVID. The value of remote work had been documented even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2012 remote-work program at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office saw productivity rise by 4.4 percent, according to a study out of Harvard Business School (Thompson, 2020). Furthermore, a 2015 case study out of Stanford University found that a Chinese travel agency saw worker productivity increase by 13 percent in the subset of workers who were assigned to work remotely over a nine-month period (Thompson, 2020).
Many employees also seem to be interested in maintaining their work-from-home schedules and lifestyles. Forbes reports on web-based polling of over 100,000 individuals conducted by Fluent, which found that 59% of individuals plan to keep working from home after the pandemic runs its course. These individuals tended to rank personal benefits – time with family, no commute, and flexible schedule – as the most important reasons they’d like to continue working from home (Koetsier, 2020). While this may mean that workers aren’t as concerned with heightened productivity as shareholders are, a study of 66 Dutch home care organizations found that “high aggregated levels of emotional exhaustion were related to low organizational performance,” which could mean that workers are less exhausted and more productive in the comfort of their own homes (Taris & Schreurs, 2009).
The Wall Street Journal indicates that as employees make “plans to allow many of their staffers to keep working remotely when the crisis is over,” implications can be felt “for everything from rent to congestion to migration in urban [areas]” (Torry, 2020). Indeed, a massive and lasting shift of the nature of work could force a re-evaluation of the merits of living in certain areas and the amount of energy spent commuting, amongst other concerns.
Even with the myriad benefits of working remotely, some workers are finding it challenging to adjust to the changes associated with this lifestyle shift. Certain important aspects of in-person work and communication are difficult to replicate over the Internet. Additionally, remote work at an acceptable level of productivity might not be sustainable in the long run. There are certainly stresses of working at home that could pile up over months, years, or even decades and take a toll on productivity and engagement. The lack of variety in a physical setting, along with the distractions associated with children, pets, and a home’s sometimes runaway untidiness could prove to make fully remote workflows less reliable in the long term than traditional workflows. However, even if a large portion of the workforce does transition back to in-person workplaces, the present ubiquity of remote work will certainly impact what a return to brick-and-mortar offices would look like.
A large-scale and long-term transition to remote work may indeed be long overdue, hastened at last by the health concerns of running a traditional office during a deadly pandemic. Many workers can expect more freedom with respect to their schedules, and less time spent unnecessarily traveling – and companies can expect, on average, to benefit from heightened performance within the newly-transitioned remote workforce.
Koetsier, J. (2020, June 13). 6 Reasons Most Want To Work From Home Even After Coronavirus. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2020/06/13/6-reasons-most-want-to-work-from-home-even-after-coronavirus/#207491f938fa
Taris, T. W., & Schreurs, P. J. G. (2009). Well-being and organizational performance: An organizational-level test of the happy-productive worker hypothesis. Work & Stress, 23(2), 120–136. https://doi.org/10.1080/02678370903072555
Thompson, C. (2020, June 10). What If Working From Home Goes on … Forever? New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/09/magazine/remote-work-covid.html
Torry, H. (2020, May 27). As Coronavirus Lockdown Rules Ease, Some Want to Keep Working From Home. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/as-coronavirus-lockdown-rules-ease-some-want-to-keep-working-from-home-11590584400