We’ve been hearing a lot lately about how employees will want to continue working from home long after government officials give the thumbs-up to returning to the office. Are corporate leaders ready to commit to long-term remote work arrangements for their employees? And what would it mean for managing the organization for the long term? Recent surveys give managers insight into the challenges they’ll face.
What Employees Like About Office Life
While it may sound like everyone wants to work from home indefinitely, that’s not quite accurate. In April and May, Gensler surveyed several hundred employees about why they might want to return to the office. Employees like the office environment specifically because of the types of activities they can’t easily do in their home offices. Here’s what workers told Gensler researchers about the positive aspects of office life:
- Scheduled meetings with colleagues 54%
- Socializing with colleagues 54%
- Impromptu interactions with co-workers 54%
- Be part of the community 45%
- Meetings with clients 40%
- Professional development/coaching opportunities 33%
Productivity Increases Linked to Remote Work
Forthcoming research from MIT shows that about 15% of U.S. employees regularly worked from home before the COVID-19 outbreak. In mid-March, some organizations transitioned 100% of their staff to remote-work situations.
For many employees, and this is documented by research conducted at Harvard Business School, productivity has increased by an average of 4.4% when they transitioned to a remote workspace and left their cubicles behind.
Why? Employees are no longer forced to commute, so they spend some of that time engaged with work tasks. Similarly, they may be socializing less frequently with work friends and have fewer interruptions from co-workers. It’s always been easy to drop by someone’s office or cubicle to get a quick answer. Now, employees aren’t sure if the co-worker is busy and they hesitate to interrupt using the office video chat system.
Other employees, especially those with very young children, find working from home to be especially challenging. They’ve come up with creative ways to get work done, often by taking shifts with their parenting partners. This new arrangement may work well for the short term, but these employees may face burnout if they have to manage both work and kids from home, fulltime, over a period of several years.
Costs and Benefits of Long-Term Remote Work Policies
In instituting permanent remote work policies, corporate leaders can expect to save money on real estate-related costs. If they bring employees together once or twice a year, they could do so at a conference center and therefore remove the obligation to rent or own office space.
While that reduced expense is a clear benefit to an organization, some costs are harder to measure. At some companies, all-hands meetings have served as a regular way for leaders to keep everyone informed. The style of the meetings, whether they involve sharing pizza during presentations or engaging in an informal question and answer session with the CEO, helps to establish culture. But when employees all regularly gather for online meetings, the video tool skews communication. Co-workers can’t always see each other’s body language and aren’t sure how to react to some comments. Managers find they may need fewer formal meetings in the age of remote work, having realized that some meetings weren’t necessary to begin with. However, when they do hold meetings, they may have trouble engaging some employees who will find it easier than ever to play with their phone when they should be paying attention.
The Cultural Impact
Other research shows that a company’s culture can quickly erode when it operates purely as an online entity. Ben Waber, CEO and president of Humanyze, reports that employees have ‘strong ties’ in some cases and ‘weak ties’ with other co-workers. Team members with ‘weak ties’ have spent less time engaging with each other since the pandemic started. And this outcome could negatively impact the bottom line. Why? Because team members who encounter one another in the break room or the hall may chat about concepts that will evolve into new product or service ideas. This in-person interaction is not easily replicated online because employees often stay siloed in the virtual world. As you ponder these issues, remember that up to 27% of employees will leave a company because they don't like the culture.
Ultimately, the spread of the coronavirus and the timing of the hoped-for vaccine may act as an invisible hand in the marketplace when it comes to determining when or if many employees engage in long-term remote work arrangements. In the meantime, managers and leaders may need to come up with new ways to help employees stay engaged and to ensure that corporate culture thrives.