Is Remote Work Working?

In March, the Coronavirus pandemic forced companies to shutter their offices, transforming remote work from a practice that was growing in acceptance to a standard operating procedure literally overnight.  Many reported surprise – and relief – at the relatively smooth transition and early productivity gains.

In March, Business News Daily reported the results of a survey conducted in late-2019 by Australia-based Airtasker.  Results indicated that remote employees work 1.4 more days per month than their office-based counterparts, resulting in more than three additional weeks of work per year. 

However, the research also found that working from home can be more stressful than working at the office. Approximately 29% of telecommuting respondents said they had a hard time maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Just 23% of office workers reported the same struggle.  In addition, 54% of remote workers and 49% of office workers said they felt “overly stressed during the workday,” and 37% of remote workers and 35% of office workers said they “procrastinated on a task until its deadline.” According to the study, 70% of respondents said maintaining relationships with their co-workers was just as important as their jobs.

This research, conducted before the outbreak of COVID-19, was reinforced by a broad survey of people working from home conducted by research and advisory services firm Valoir and published in a May 2020 report.  Key findings included:

  • Remote work had minimal impact on productivity – an average reduction of 1 percent. Those working from home with children reported a slightly larger decrease in productivity of 2 percent. Those working alone experienced the largest decrease in productivity of 3 percent. 
  • The average workday is 9.75 hours, with an average start time of 8:15 am and an average end time of 6 pm.  Work-at-home distractions average 2 hours per day but workers compensate by extending the workday.
  • The biggest distraction from working at home is social media. Nearly one third of respondents reported social media was their biggest distraction, devoting nearly two hours to it. 
  • Most people believe their company is doing a good job supporting remote work. Four out of five workers gave their company a grade of A or B, and fewer than 5 percent gave their company a failing grade. 
  • More than one-third of workers say concerns about their company’s viability or their job security is their primary concern — far ahead of illness of themselves, a family member, or loved one. 
  • Reliable broadband access is the greatest technical challenge for all.  3% of their worktime on tech related issues.

In research conducted by Robert Half, 80 percent of the 1,000 office workers surveyed said telework allows for the ability to break up their day into blocks of business and personal time—referred to as “windowed work”—while working from home. Employees can self-schedule fluid workdays (and nights) around childcare and schooling, online meetings, personal errands, and focused time on the job. Of those respondents, 73 percent reported that the arrangement has led to greater productivity.

  • A greater percentage of respondents with children (78 percent) than those without (66 percent) said they were more productive.
  • Nearly an equal number of men (75 percent) and women (71 percent) said they get more done when integrating personal and professional activities throughout the day.
  • Workers older than 55 tended to prefer a traditional schedule (39 percent), compared with workers ages 41 to 54 (32 percent) and ages 25 to 40 (22 percent).

Based on these promising early results, many companies – including Twitter and Facebook – stated that they would embrace a remote working relationship long term.  Some companies have indicated an intention to give up physical office spaces entirely and remain 100% remote.

 Korn Ferry has examined whether the levels of productivity have been sustained as the continued impact of the virus has forced companies to delay the reopening of their offices. They discovered that an increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.

As software, system and transformation projects initially delayed by COVID-19 are restarted, companies report that these projects take longer than when conducted in an office environment, hampered by the challenges of integrating and testing software and hardware with its engineers.  The potential for spontaneous interactions, highly beneficial when working together in person, many executives said, is lost.

Some employers say their workers appear less connected and bosses fear that younger professionals are not developing at the same rate as they would in offices, sitting next to colleagues and absorbing how they do their jobs.  Training employees who began work after the pandemic began and have had to work remotely from the start has not been as effective as in-person training.  New employees do not appear to learn as quickly when dependent on on-line courseware. They do not have the same casual day-to-day opportunities to ask more experienced workers for help or advice and have not been able to quickly pick up company jargon or business practices.

The toll of extended work-from-home arrangements is likely to affect career development, particularly for younger workers, several executives said.  Managers have less insight into new employees’ progress, and recognition for accomplishment is less likely to happen. 

For now, the length of most office leases means that most companies are unlikely to move away from physical offices immediately.  Most U.S. office leases are eight years or longer, according to an analysis by credit-rating agency Moody’s Investors Service. In an early July report, analysts noted that they did not expect an exodus from offices, despite popular claims that offices were now a thing of the past.

More companies now envision a hybrid future, with more time spent working remote, yet with opportunities to regularly convene teams may institute “core hours” for its employees, similar to office hours that professors hold on college campuses. The idea under consideration is that teams would agree to come together for a limited time on certain days of the week to bounce ideas off each other, collaborate and strategize.