Posted 2:01 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021
UWL expert explains telecommuting benefits, challenges and the future of work
Up to half of the American workforce is now working from home. A grand social experiment is underway as employees log in to Microsoft Teams, Zoom and other video conferencing tools to begin the remote workday from their bedrooms and basements. Such a rapid change in the way people go to work raises the question: What does this mean for the workforce long-term?
Although no one can predict the future, the shift to telecommuting has cleared some of the muddy waters that have long held employers back from embracing it. For one, employers have learned that working from home is possible for many employees. They can become adept at using the tools and technology to do it, explains Christa Kiersch, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse associate professor of Management. Still, whether this trend will take hold and transform the workforce is left to tell. Below Kiersch helps answer some of the common questions surrounding the unanticipated virtual shift.
Will work from home become the new norm?
Kiersch says it is a safe bet that more flexible work arrangements will be happening worldwide post COVID-19 than before it. That is because many employees and companies are seeing some benefits.
- The majority of people working from home don’t want to go back full time. They want the flexibility of where and how they work. PwC surveyed 120 U.S. executives from public and private companies, as well as 1,200 U.S. office workers from a range of industries. The surveys found that 83 % of office workers want to work from home at least one day a week, and 55 % of employers anticipate that most of their workers will do so long after COVID-19 is not a concern. A separate large-scale survey from Slack found 72 % of knowledge workers surveyed prefer a mix of remote and office work. Others were split between working exclusively in the office or exclusively at home. Slack is an online business communication platform, which would potentially benefit from more remote connections. So Slack as a source could have potential bias.
- Companies that have made a planned switch to virtual and reduced their physical footprint are likely recognizing the financial savings of employees working from home. Stanford Economist Nicholas Bloom sums up the cost savings found by a Chinese travel company pre-pandemic in this TED talk.
What are the benefits of work from home?
Mounting research pre-COVID-19 shows the positive benefits of telework. Studies have found outcomes like improved productivity, retention and cost savings. But this research was all conducted pre-pandemic when telework was optional, most people were telecommuting only some of the time, and employees weren’t faced with the added responsibilities and stressors of the pandemic such as supervising children during the workday. So benefits pre-COVID-19 can’t be applied to the current situation where many employees are mandated to work from home all the time, explains Kiersch. Still the research could be applied to a post-pandemic environment where telework could again be optional, less frequent and without added family-related responsibilities such as childcare.
Studies demonstrating the benefits of telework pre-COVID-19
- A 2007 study supports the positive outcomes of telecommuting, while also suggesting a 'plateau' effect where too much telecommuting harmed relationships with coworkers.
- A 2012 study shows the positive relationships between telework and productivity, retention, organizational commitment, and performance.
- A longitudinal study supported cost savings and productivity increases for telework. It also suggested that the majority of people did not want to work from home 100 % of the time, as they found it too isolating.
- Two research articles suggest that people who work from home at least some of the time had lower stress and better moods on days they work from home. And people who work from home some of the time are better off on days they work from home compared to days they work in office. See this 2020 study from the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology and this 2015 study from the Journal of Business and Psychology.
- While many studies show the benefits of telework, a couple of high-profile companies are an exception to the rule. IBM and Yahoo both shifted away from telework after trying it; however, experts disagree on whether telework is to blame for the issues the companies encountered. Also, studies have shown that face-to-face meetings are essential for collaborative, creative types of work where staff are developing new ideas and in-person connections fuel creativity.
Challenges working from home during COVID-19
During a pandemic, telework looks different. Instead of being a choice, it is often mandated. Instead of being a couple days a week, it is happening all week long. Often employees are also juggling home responsibilities such as teaching and childcare. Workers may have more difficulty separating work and home responsibilities, which can make work-life balance even worse. Others are feeling increasingly isolated away from the social life that work can offer. The challenges for employees have brought a heightened attention to employee health/safety and wellness.
Also, some simply can’t work from home, widening inequalities within the workforce. COVID -19 has brought issues of economic instability and job insecurity.
All these factors add up to moving from positive benefits of telework into negative territory. Standford Researcher Bloom sums up why COVID-style of working from home is not effective.
How can we thrive in this new norm of telecommuting?
While studies pre-COVID-19 show the benefits of telework, it is also clear that it doesn’t work if the company culture doesn’t support it and if managers don’t know how to manage in the virtual environment. Managers may feel lost during the pandemic as they were unprepared for the shift to virtual and/or they may worry that teams are distracted at home or not getting as much done.
Kiersch says many companies (probably unintentionally) won't realize the benefits of telework if they don't establish the culture, norms, and employee development needed to make it work. Pre-COVID, many companies had a stigma against telework, lack of trust of employees teleworking, lack of employee training for technology or virtual communication, lack of manager training, and more. Without these supports, telework won't be successful. Yet, the research suggests it's worth the setup because the payoff can be huge.
Employers should also aim to find the right balance of remote work for their employees as the COVID-19 style of exclusive telecommuting (all day, every day) often isn’t a good fit for employee wellbeing or performance. Also, creative and collaborative teams can suffer with no opportunities for face-to-face interactions. 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. If you are able to do that successfully, then you’re better off. However, during the pandemic, that type of separation hasn’t been possible for a lot of people.
What can we learn from this massive experiment?
The pandemic provides the opportunity to question a long-held assumption that people need to be in the office during a set time every day for work to happen. It was a ridiculous assumption given the type of work many people can do online, explains Kiersch. But we also have a lot of systems in place that make it difficult to make big changes. Still, Kiersch says we can expect some changes post-pandemic because society has been forced to rethink how we do work.