After the coronavirus suddenly moved millions of Americans from their commercial office to their homes for work, some major companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Nationwide are making the arrangement permanent for some or all of their workers even after the pandemic ends.
Could this be the future of work?
Not necessarily, one expert said. While more people will work remotely going forward — which many employees welcome — the increase probably won’t be as significant once the world returns to normal.
“Not everyone will be working from home,” Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed Hiring Lab said. “There are likely to be challenges that arise, some of those people have already experienced, and some of which people might not have yet realized.”
The remote work question comes at an unprecedented time. More than half of the American workforce was working from home in April, according to two rounds of surveys by Upwork, and many have found the transition to be better than expected.
But even with the big switch to remote work, about 2 in 5 jobs in the U.S. can’t be performed entirely remotely, according to a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, making the premise of permanent remote work less likely for many.
And while the biggest benefits of remote work are lack of commute, fewer unnecessary meetings, and reduced distractions, according to the Upwork surveys, some of those benefits may not be here to stay.
‘A more unequal work experience’
The pandemic caused a quick transition for employees to their home offices, which resulted in technical difficulties and different work experiences based on their home office capacity. Many people’s homes are not set up to function like a full-time office, presenting workers with new challenges, according to Kolko.
“That is one way that working from home could give people a more unequal work experience,” he said. “People with big homes will get a separate home office and a lot of bandwidth, and may be able to be more productive than people who live in a small apartment.”
People with smaller apartments who don’t have separate spaces for work or share their communal space with roommates may have a harder time performance-wise. Additionally, distractions at home could be worse than those at work, especially for those who don’t have a separate work set-up.
‘Remote work might get less productive over time’
While 1 in 3 hiring managers found that productivity has increased as a result of remote work during the pandemic, according to the Upwork surveys, this gain may erode over time.
Remote work may be working better now when organizations are in maintenance and survival mode during a public health and financial crisis, but this is not necessarily the case for a company that wants to grow in normal times.
“Remote work might get less productive over time,” Kolko said. “It’s easier to maintain relationships that you already have remotely than it is to build new ones.”
Additionally, remote work may be harder for people who are earlier in their careers, who might be new to the company, and may not have a broad company network. People with more experience in the job or at the company can be more efficient in a remote work environment because they can locate the right colleague easily to help them on specific projects or solve certain challenges, Kolko said.
‘People who are remote might be missing out’
While the coronavirus pandemic is the first time many companies have the majority of their workforce working from home, this may soon change as offices reopen. New York, which was once the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, just entered Phase II of the city’s reopening, allowing office workers to return to their desks.
“Right now, it's a level playing field in companies where everybody is basically working remotely — everybody's interacting with their clients remotely,” Kolko said. “As some people start to go back to the office, we could start to move back to a world where people who are remote might be missing out on conversations and informal activities that happen in-person.”
The transition to the old way of working could disconnect those who continue to work remotely from those who are in the office. It’s much easier for people to be remote in a meeting when everyone is remote, compared with a meeting in which everyone is in a room together while one works from home.
Additionally, companies who are competing with other companies to hire new talent may feel that if other companies are providing the in-person experience of being in the office, they may want to do the same.
‘Employers might feel they don't need to be as flexible”
Remote work is often more appealing to employees than to employers, and it’s considered a perk that helps retain or recruit talent when job opportunities are aplenty.
“One of the strategies for hiring in a tight labor market is allowing people to work remotely,” Kolko said. “But because of the pandemic, the unemployment rate has jumped and is likely to stay elevated.”
With the May unemployment rate hitting 13.3% — versus 3.5% in February before the pandemic started — employers are attracting new talent in a less competitive job market than before.
“We are unlikely to return to the tight labor market for a long time,” Kolko said, “Employers might feel they don't need to be as flexible, so remote work might increase by less than people are currently expecting.”