Initially some of my co-workers were skeptical that remote work meant
anything other than an unrecorded vacation day. One summer day, seeing a rather
empty looking parking lot at our main office, the CFO exclaimed “Where the heck
is everybody? We’ll never meet our numbers!” Our CEO overheard this and quickly
countered that productivity was actually improving, because some of the work
involved was better done away from the office where people could both focus and
have better work/life balance.
That exchange nearly 20 years ago has no doubt been repeated countless
times at innumerable organizations since, as historically many leaders have
been skeptical about how much work really gets done away from management’s
direct, in-person oversight. There were a few high-profile companies over the
years, such as Yahoo! and IBM, that cancelled their remote work options for
And these headlines were balanced by studies here and there that
continued to show productivity for remote workers equaled or in some cases even
exceeded what they accomplished in a traditional workspace.
Now here we are, and the pandemic has proven—even to many former
skeptics—that many jobs can be done, and done well, in places other than the
But this movement toward remote work began long before the pandemic. Although
remote working is far from new— 8% of U.S. employees worked
from home at least once a week before the pandemic—the numbers doing so has
been steadily increasing. Data
compiled by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics showed a 159% increase
in the number of remote workers between 2005 and 2017, and a 44% jump in the
number of employees working from anywhere between 2012 and 2017.
These numbers pale in comparison to what’s occurred in 2020. In the
quarter of a year that’s now passed since stay-at-home orders were put in place,
many employers are giving serious thought to making remote work a more
permanent option for many (if not all) of their people after pandemic-related
restrictions are lifted. And why not, given the studies coming out and the
first-hand experience many are having, even under less than ideal
For instance, one research study during the COVID-19 pandemic found
that the abrupt move to working from home has had only had a 1% reduction on
work productivity. And more than 40% of workers would prefer to work remotely
full time in the future. Another study found that 70% of leaders indicated that working from home
was the same or better for their team's work performance.
And again, these results are coming while
remote work veterans and novices alike are having to do so with children home
due to school closures, health concerns for themselves or older family members,
few options for entertainment or stress relief outside the home, and other
In short, we’ve all come to better understand that
work isn’t primarily a place we go, it is what we do. Work is an activity, and
where that activity can and should best take place requires intentional and
That said, before there is a rush to go permanently virtual, companies
need to recognize that remote work isn’t for everyone and is often an unequal
playing field (though in other respects the same could be said for traditional
workplaces.) At the very least, led by their HR teams, organizations need to
think carefully and intentionally about their remote and flexible work
Not Equal for All
The case for remote work has been made many times over. The
organization gains access to a larger talent pool, cuts costs, sees reductions
in absenteeism, and so on. Workers gain more autonomy, skip stressful commutes,
enjoy greater work/life balance, and in some instances can even increase their
But consider some of these scenarios that COVID-19 has helped bring to
Working parents, and especially single parents, are clearly struggling
to work from home more than those with grown children or none at all. Until
schools fully reopen, juggling schedules and the use of home resources
(technology, bandwidth, room space, etc.) will continue to be an issue for
In addition, those who have eldercare responsibilities are finding
themselves continuously stretched to balance their work with the needs of their
Or consider the digital divide as found in the employee who’s been spending
the pandemic working
from their car in a McDonald’s parking lot, taking advantage of the
restaurant’s free Wi-Fi because they can’t afford Internet access at home.
Or the employee who’s reluctant for whatever reason to show the inside
of their home on a Zoom call.
And beyond such personal examples, there can sometimes be tax-related
or other policy issues that arise with remote work. Clearly each organization’s
leadership has a responsibility to give careful thought all employees’
circumstances when weighing the pros and cons of long-term remote work on a
Short-term and Long-term Decisions
The COVID-19 quarantine began in March, and it wasn’t too long after
that many companies decided that a remote work model could be viable for them
over the long haul.
announced that its employees would work from home through the end of 2020. Zillow
did the same. Google
has recently gone further and is allowing its employees to work from home at
least until July 2021.
employees are never coming back to the office.
“ … if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to
work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that
happen,” the company said in a May 12 statement announcing the move.
Around the same time, Nationwide
announced that it plans to shutter at least five of its U.S.-based physical
offices by Nov. 1, 2020. Employees from those locations will permanently work
These are just two examples of organizations to go this route in the
wake of the coronavirus pandemic. There will be more.
And that decision might turn out to be a really good one for a lot of
Others will decide that offering flexible work arrangements will be a
preferred approach—count on seeing “hybrid remote work” models in the months
and years to come.
But even such seemingly sensible, middle-ground approaches can be
problematic, with some experts even arguing quite persuasively that without a
lot of careful thought and planning, such approaches will only offer
the worst of both worlds.
So, take your time. Survey your workforce. Measure how workers are
performing remotely versus how they performed in the traditional workplace. To
the extent that you can, consider employees’ individual circumstances and then
personalize solutions in ways that optimize engagement, collaboration, and
ultimately productivity and talent retention. And use resources, such as those i4cp
has curated, to help your careful, intentional approach to this massive
Stone is a senior research analyst at i4cp.