In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that only 5.3% of the workforce was working remotely full-time. But that number has increased significantly over the years, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, many offices and workplaces had to temporarily close their doors to comply with local stay-at-home or lockdown orders. Most of the U.S. workforce had to start working remotely in response to this sudden, unexpected change. In fact, right before the COVID-19 pandemic, only 20% of the workforce was working remotely, but this number grew to 70% during the pandemic.
Even though the stay-at-home and lockdown orders were lifted last year, most workers still have not returned to the office. This has led many experts to question whether working from home will continue even after the pandemic is over. What are the pros and cons of working remotely? What will the future of remote work look like? Here’s what you should know:
What Are the Advantages of Working From Home?
Remote work has the potential to benefit both employers and employees. Some of the many advantages of working from include:
- Increased job satisfaction. Research shows that employees who work from home are more satisfied with their jobs than employees that must commute to work.
- More flexibility. Working from home allows employees to work more flexible hours, which can help them achieve a better work/life balance.
- Lower operating costs. By allowing employees to work from home, employers can avoid the cost of renting or buying office space. The U.S. Patent Office, for example, saved $38 million on office space by switching to remote work.
- Larger job applicant pool. If employees work from home, employers are free to hire job candidates located all around the country. They are no longer limited to local candidates.
- Increased productivity. Numerous studies have shown that productivity tends to increase when employees work remotely.
- More control over the work environment. Employees who work from home can create their own work environment, which is something they cannot do in the office. This allows them to create whatever type of environment works best for them.
What Are the Drawbacks of Working From Home?
There are drawbacks to working from home, too. Some of the disadvantages of remote work include:
- Enforced isolation. Working from home means spending a lot of time alone, which may not appeal to some employees.
- Noisy environment. Employees with kids or employees who share their at-home work space with a spouse or roommate may have to work in a noisy, distracting environment.
- Longer hours. Studies show that employees who work from home tend to work longer hours than employees who commute to work. This could be because it’s harder to separate work from your personal life when you are working from home.
- Privacy concerns. Employers often keep tabs on their remote workers with monitoring software, which some employees may consider an invasion of their privacy.
- Limited to certain professions. It’s impossible for people who work in health care, service, public transportation, and other fields to work from home.
- Child care. During the pandemic, many remote employees had no other choice but to juggle child care and work, which was a constant struggle.
How Remote Work Has Changed How People Work
Regardless of the future of remote work, working from home has already led to several major changes to the way people work. Some of these changes are positive, whereas others are not. These major changes include:
- Shift to New Technologies
- Rethink Meetings
- Lack of Communication With “Weak Ties”
Shift to New Technologies
Remote workers had to quickly adopt several new technologies in order to successfully complete their work from home.
For example, Accenture, which employs over 500,000 people around the world, had to send nearly all of its employees home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, less than 10% of employees worked remotely, so this represented a major shift for the company.
To adapt to this change, Accenture relied heavily on Microsoft Teams, which is a business communication platform. Because employees were no longer able to meet face-to-face, they used this platform to conduct audio and video calls with their co-workers. According to Accenture, the volume of video calls increased sixfold and audio calls tripled to 900 million minutes.
Thanks in part to these technologies, Accenture employees were able to seamlessly switch to remote work. Employee productivity also increased across several metrics, including developer productivity.
It’s no secret that employees don’t enjoy meetings. Multiple studies have shown that employees want to reduce the number of meetings they must attend in the workplace. In fact, one study conducted by researchers at Boston University found that 71% of employees think most meetings are unproductive and inefficient. Fortunately, the shift to remote work has forced many employers to rethink common office practices, including meetings.
Employers now schedule video conferences with employees who are working remotely. But video conferencing technology is far from perfect. The signal is often delayed, which leads to attendees awkwardly talking over one another. Furthermore, many employees find it unnatural and unsettling to stare at their co-workers on a video conference for hours.
Problems like these have made employers more mindful of when they are scheduling meetings and who needs to attend. To avoid issues with video conferencing, employers are now only scheduling meetings when it is absolutely necessary, and they’re only inviting those who could benefit from attending. As a result, there are fewer formal video conference meetings with remote workers, although co-workers still stay in constant contact via instant messaging.
Lack of Communication With “Weak Ties”
In an office setting, conversations often start when two or more employees bump into one another in a common area. But this isn’t possible in a remote setting, and the lack of small talk like this has changed the way remote employees communicate with one another.
Humanyze software is designed to evaluate internal communication within organizations. It classifies each contact as a “strong tie” or “weak tie.” A strong tie is a contact an employee talks to frequently, whereas a weak tie is a contact an employee rarely talks to.
Prior to COVID-19, about 45% of an employee’s time was spent communicating with their five strongest ties within their organization. During the pandemic, this number increased to 60%. In other words, working remotely made strong ties even stronger.
On the other hand, communication with contacts classified as weak ties decreased by over 30%. Research has shown that communication between weak ties within a company often leads to innovative new ideas. Because of this, the drop in weak tie communication could affect a company’s ability to innovate.
The Future of Remote Work
There’s no doubt that the pandemic completely disrupted the way people work. But after the pandemic is over, will employees return to the workplace and go back to business as usual? Here are three predictions about the future of remote work:
- Emergence of New Technologies
- Permanent Shift to Remote Work
- Hybrid Remote/Office Model
Emergence of New Technologies
Experts believe that countless new technologies will emerge to support remote work. Some experts predict that employers will use augmented reality and virtual reality to conduct meetings with remote workers in the future. These technologies may create a more personal, intimate meeting experience and eventually replace video conferencing and audio calls.
Several communication platforms designed specifically for remote workers are already in development. Pragli is an instant messaging platform that allows remote workers to make their conversations public, which would give their co-workers an opportunity to join their conversation. The platform’s developers believe that this feature will help remote workers engage in small talk and banter that occurs frequently in an office setting.
There’s also Loom.ai, which is a video conferencing platform that lets remote workers use avatars instead of showing their faces. Switching to an avatar helps remote workers avoid the awkwardness of staring at their co-workers during a video conference. It also gives remote workers the freedom to get up from their seats and move around so they don’t need to sit in the same position staring at their screen for the duration of the meeting.
Permanent Shift to Remote Work
Some experts predict that a number of companies will allow their employees to work remotely forever. Several companies have already hinted that this is a very real possibility. Facebook, for example, expects half of their workforce to shift to remote work within the next five years.
Other companies have already moved forward with plans to permanently shift to remote work. Twitter has announced that its employees will not be required to return to the office at any point in the future. Nationwide Insurance permanently closed six of its offices after announcing that one-third of employees will now permanently work from home.
These are just several examples of companies that are making the switch to remote work permanent, but experts predict that many others will follow suit in the near future.
Hybrid Remote/Office Model
Experts also predict that companies will adopt a hybrid model that allows employees to split their time between home and the office.
This is partly due to the fact that research shows that employees find it challenging to build trust with co-workers online. To solve this problem, experts believe that employers will give employees both face-to-face time and remote work time.
One scholar, Timothy Golden, found that there is a correlation between a worker’s happiness and the amount of time they spend working remotely. The more someone works from home, the happier they are.
However, the worker’s happiness tends to plateau once they reach 15 hours of remote work per week. At this point, their happiness will not increase regardless of how many more hours they work from home. This study supports the idea of adopting a hybrid home/office approach in the future.