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Will remote work continue?

Posted 11:10 a.m. Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Laptop computer on a desk. Monitor has the words: remote work.

UWL expert explains remote work benefits, challenges and the future 

In July 2020, about half of the American workforce was working remotely after government stay-at-home orders led companies to close doors and send employees home. 

Since the pandemic, a shift to more telecommuting helped clear the questions that long held employers back from embracing the home as an office. Employers learned their staff can become adept at using the tools and technology to work effectively in a remote environment.  

Remote work environments have become more common place post pandemic. The Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA) from WFH Research found by spring of 2024, 13% of full-time employees were fully remote and 26% were in a hybrid arrangement.* 

Yet, the survey found traditional office work is still the most common workplace format with 62 % of employees working in-person, according to SWAA. 

The remote work trend has not impacted the work world as much as scholars thought it might, explains Christa Kiersch, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse professor of Management

“While we do see a clear uptick in remote and hybrid work today compared to pre-pandemic, the shift is not as big as many predicted and in some ways this highlights how resistant to change we are as a society,” explains Kiersch. “We had the potential to make big changes in the world of work, but we largely didn’t make them.” 

For instance, Kiersch points out that while employers learned an 8-5 schedule wasn’t necessary to get the job done, it is still the norm. And employers also learned they didn’t need as many meetings, but those meetings are largely still part of everyday schedules. 

“Even though we were faced with truths like these, we basically said, ‘Let's keep things the way they are,’” says Kiersch. 

Kiersch predicts that Artificial Intelligence has the potential to influence the world of work in a much bigger way. Stay tuned for a future Currents post on AI and workplace transformations. 

Below Kiersch explains some of the workplace trends in this post-pandemic environment. 

Will remote work continue?  

Fully remote work has likely peaked for the time being. LinkedIn Job data shows the share of LinkedIn job postings listed as remote continues to fall from a peak of 20.6% in February 2022 to 8.9% in December 2023.

This decline in remote postings doesn’t match overall employee preferences. Demand among employees for remote work offerings is still strong and has outstripped supply of remote jobs, according to a LinkedIn report. Remote job postings made up 10 % of all postings in December 2023, yet they received 46 % of all applications on LinkedIn.    

The prevalence of remote work depends on many factors such as the type of work and type of employer. In some industries it is becoming more common place with one in every two positions in the technology, information and media industries being offered remote in 2023, according to LinkedIn. Meanwhile, other positions, such as those that are client-facing are less likely to be possible in a remote setting. 

Remote work is also largely a factor of an employer’s preferences, finances and culture. Some employers, particularly in larger metropolitan areas with expensive property values, found great savings post 2020 in selling or ending lease agreements and transferring worksites to home offices. For these employers finances played a major role in their decisions to move to fully remote work settings and likely continues to factor into that decision. Stanford Economist Nicholas Bloom sums up the cost savings found by a Chinese travel company pre-pandemic in this TED talk.  

Much like finances can play a role in decision making so can company culture or perceptions about the importance of in-person work. If the organization’s leaders see the ability of staff to work in person as one of its competitive advantages, the company is less likely to choose a fully remote mode of work, explains Kiersch. 

“There isn’t a one-size fits all approach for all companies or people or jobs or teams,” says Kiersch. "My advice would be, the more micro you can make these calls --- at the team level, job level, human level -- possibly the better, though watch out for equity issues.” 

Hybrid might be the new happy medium 

Hybrid work has emerged as the most common employee preference, according to LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index.  LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Survey found that most countries analyzed saw more than 50 % of employees express a preference for remote or hybrid positions compared to an onsite role. There is a gap between how much employees want to work from home and the amount of work from home days offered by employers. In January 2024, that gap was about a half a day, according to Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA).

Some form of hybrid work is likely the 'best solution' for most companies, most jobs, most workers, who do tasks that can be done remotely, advises Kiersch. The right 'blend' of telework and face-to-face work depends on a lot of factors, but offering employees autonomy and creating an environment of trust are keys to success. 

Even if hybrid is found to be the best, it's not perfect, adds Kiersch. Important hybrid-specific challenges have emerged such as equity issues among employees who work more in person vs. remote, manager trust, employee skills managing a remote work environment, and more. Communication can also become a challenge, particularly if having hybrid meetings where some people attend virtually and others are in person. They are often better conducted all in person or all virtual, notes Kiersch. 

A Havard Business Review article offers factors to consider in designing the best hybrid (or telework) structure for one’s team or organization, making strong point that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. 

Preference for remote work is personal 

The preference for remote or hybrid work is not universal. While for some people remote work has been an overall positive experience where they found flexibility for a better work-life balance or more focus time in the quiet of home, for others it has been remote largely negative. They may have found less quiet, focus-time at home or experienced feelings of social isolation.  

Levels of loneliness in our nation are rising. Young adults, those entering workforce for first time, are consistently found to be the most lonely, and remote work can feed those feelings of isolation

How remote work affects organization's culture 

Having a strong organizational culture is less about whether the work is done virtually, face-to-face or hybrid but how the culture is infused in employee experiences. A toxic culture can exist in a face-to-face or virtual environment. Working remotely might serve as a buffer for a toxic culture or it could limit a really healthy culture. 

Employers often make decisions about work modality for the wrong reasons — sometimes moving to bring people back to an in person setting because of a lack of trust, explains Kiersch.  “If you don’t trust them to work virtually — they were probably a bad hire to begin with or you have bad management,” explains Kiersch. “Bringing them back face-to-face won’t solve those issues." 

Kiersch advises working on developing talent and a strong culture of trust, the bread and butter of effective organizations.  

How remote work affects communication and collaboration 

If employees have established trust with one another, meeting virtually is less likely a problem. If there is not yet trust established, a lot of research has shown that trust is even more important for team outcomes for virtual teams, and even more difficult to develop for virtual teams.   

Studies have shown mixed evidence on the productivity of remote workers. Fully remote workers may be less productive on average than fully face-to-face positions, though the research is limited. Many articles cite 10-20% less productivity from fully remote work, but this percentage range is based on very few actual studies, with widely ranging contextual variables (including during COVID or not, job sectors, and sample demographics) making it difficult to determine how remote work would affect productivity in any specific workplace setting. 

 Meanwhile hybrid work has been found to be just as productive as on-site work, according to various studies including Stanford For Economic Policy Research.   

But productivity isn’t the only outcome a company should consider, notes Kiersch. They should also take into account: 

  • Financial outcomes: Employers will likely reap financial benefits from fully remote and hybrid work arrangements from other considerations such as not funding office space and having the opportunity for global hiring. And remote workers tend to work more hours, so even if less productive they still produce at the levels required.  
  • Employee satisfaction, perception, and retention: Offering remote and hybrid options can also improve employee recruitment and retention. Employees still have a strong preference for choice – for autonomy – in where they work, and giving them autonomy is a great signal of trust and commitment in them, which they will likely reciprocate to the team or company. This is particularly important for certain subgroups of employees, so if a company cares about DEI in candidate pools, this employee experience piece is really important.  

How can we thrive in a remote or hybrid work environment   

It is clear that remote work doesn’t work if the company culture doesn’t support it and if managers don’t know how to manage in the virtual environment. Culture, norms, and employee development is needed to make it work.

For teams learning how to do work in a virtual environment, Kiersch advises: 

Magnifying best practices for teamwork:   

  • Foster open and transparent communication 
  • Set clear purpose and goals 
  • Create clearly assigned roles and expectations 

Shift thinking on the best way to get work done:  

  • Focus on work outcomes vs. input of a specific amount of time.   
  • Question assumptions that the virtual work environment needs to mimic the in-person environment. For instance, an hour long, in-person meeting does not need to be replaced with an hour-long meeting on Zoom. People don’t effectively engage in conversation for the same amount of time and quality of communication when they are virtual vs. face-to-face.   
  • Re-navigate work-life balance. During the pre-COVID environment, the suggestion to improve work-life balance was to maintain stricter boundaries between 'work' and 'family/life' hours. This 'segmentation' approach isn't best for everyone. Some people need better/stronger boundaries, and others benefit from more blending or 'bridging' from work to life roles (and vice versa)

*Barrero, Jose Maria, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis, 2021. “Why working from home will stick,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 28731.