Should Telecommuting be Permanent?

February 24th, 2021 14 min read

The coronavirus outbreak has created a question of remote working becoming a new normal for millions. Productivity tools and collaboration software makes working from home a real possibility. Amazon and Facebook have already made long-term remote work a reality. Many other companies are doing the same. Should more traditional office time or permanent telecommuting become the new standard?. In this article, we explore the benefits of each.

Benefits to Remote Work

Productivity

When huge numbers of employees began to work from home, there were serious worries about productivity. These concerns have largely been shown to be unfounded. A report from Mercer found that 94% of employers indicated that productivity was as good or better from home. In the tech industry, TrustRadius data supports this. 57% of tech employees said they were more productive working remotely, and 24% said they were the same.

Software like web conferencing and webinar make remote work more efficient. Slack and Microsoft Teams substitute quick workplace check-ins and short conversations. A decade ago similar tools existed but were not as refined. Recent years have seen widespread upgrades to internet access and hardware. This has made these tools more reliable and effective.

Remote productivity gains are not universal, and we will discuss that in the section on the flaws of remote work below. For employers looking to keep on their staff, there are tools available. Employee monitoring software is designed to track activities and web traffic. Monitoring remote staff with tools has its pros and cons.

Businesses Save Money

No longer needing a physical workspace is a huge cost-cutter for companies. This benefit is huge, as it saves them rental, cleaning, and utility costs. The cost of rent can be anywhere from 0.5% to 11% of sales or higher depending on your industry.

Many office-space owners are already feeling the consequences of this. Should telecommuting become permanent, the way we rent workplaces will change permanently. Flexible office sharing companies like LiquidSpace offer on-demand and contract-free spaces. Companies like WeWork that were battered by the pandemic are adjusting their business models. They have become more flexible with and require fewer commitments. WeWork is even looking to have positive cash flow in 2021.

Commuting Will be Gone for Many

The commute to work has long been a dreaded part of the day for millions. Starting in 2020, for many people that trip transformed into working-up the motivation to roll out of bed towards their desk. While the percentage of meetings with visible bed-heads has surely increased, the benefit is clear. Many studies show that commuting takes a  physical and mental toll.

The reduction in drive time benefits the environment as well. One estimate says the reduction of commuting cuts 66 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions yearly. Even if we only worked half-time at the office, we would save 54 million tons of carbon emissions a year. This does not include the benefits from not heating and cooling office spaces. 

Effects of pollution can be hard to see. One silver lining of the stay-at-home orders was a glimpse at a slightly cleaner vision of cityscapes. We can see the impact fewer cars has on the road in this CNN image. With some changes, we can maintain this improvement. 

When you combine this data with the added values of more time with the family, the pros become clearer. The average commute is 27 minutes. Nearly everyone would appreciate an extra half an hour in each day to spend how they chose.

Increased Job Satisfaction

Remote workers are, on average, more likely to be satisfied with their job. A new study found that 22% more report being satisfied in their work. 91% of respondents in this cited a better work-life balance as a contributing factor.

Employees working from home also tend to work more, not less. They spend about 43% more time actual working than those who work in an office setting. 

Downsides to Remote Work

Lack of Accountability

As much as data suggests that employees are productive during remote work, managers will still worry. The lack of supervision that comes with separate physical space can be an issue. In some sectors, this is far more relevant than others. Education is one that comes to mind. For teachers, motivating students remotely is a problem. There is a wealth of articles on improving student productivity, and many of these focus on individualization. This kind of custom 1-on-1 tailoring is harder.

For many, this will boil down to the trust relationship between employees and superiors. Time-tracking and clocking-in are issues if employers feel the need for direct accountability. Some teams may rely heavily on asynchronous communication methods. These allow for flexibility in response. This can be frustrating, as you have no other option but to wait for a reply. If someone is offline, this can be impossible. 

Synchronous communication helps solves this but creates meeting fatigue. A person may find their workflow interrupted by Zoom and Slack messages all day.

This Forbes piece outlines the basic reality of the situation. Some managers waste time worrying about employee productivity. For many industries, remote work accountability will work. For others, it will not. This breakdown will vary hugely depending on what you do.

No In-Person Collaboration

Most of us can (hopefully) remember a work experience where being with others was helpful. Bouncing ideas off one another in a physical space can be wonderful. Having a whiteboard and being able to pace back and forth are useful as well. Though there are productivity tools, the experience is not the same. For some, this will be a serious issue.

Human communication requires a lot more than words. Body language is a vital component. This is true for both functional and social parts of work life. While video conferencing helps, it is not the same. Team members, especially those of small businesses, may miss the interaction. 

Connection Access and Inequality

Collaboration tools are useless if employees can’t take advantage of them. Microsoft says the number of Americans without reliable broadband internet is around 163 million. Like many issues, this is exasperated by racial and socioeconomic inequalities. 

Black Americans are 7% less likely than white Americans to have access to high-speed internet. Without this essential service, most workplace collaboration tools simply won’t function. If telecommuting is to become a new reality, it may exasperate a new segment of inequality. Unstable connections also impact rural areas far more than urban ones. 

Fortunately, this area is improving with technological advancements. 5G is just starting to become more widespread in urban areas. Outside of cities, fiber connections offer hope for rural populations. Recent political progress has been made, with the new administration making promises in this area.

Social Consequences

Humans are incredibly social creatures. Interaction with colleagues is a huge part of our lives. Remote work impacts this. A good term for what we are losing is “social capital.” Broadly speaking, these are the positive interactions and emotions we share when we make connections. 

For employers, these connections have real economic value. Social capital leads to more creative problem solving, and better employee retention. Companies incur soft costs as well as hard costs when they lose social capital. Soft costs include less innovation, riskier decision-making, and less efficient collaboration. The primary hard cost is employee turnover, which Gallup estimates costs American companies $1T per year. With recruiting and productivity loss, replacing employees is expensive. The total cost can be twice as much as their yearly salary.

One of our methods to combat these issues is using tools like Zoom, but even this has its problems. Zoom fatigue is a common problem and something that was felt by many in 2020. If working remotely is the new normal for many, this burn-out will have to be addressed better.

In our survey specific to the tech industry, TrustRadius found nearly a third of remote workers felt isolated or disconnected. Our piece on the impact of COVID-19 in the tech industry does a good job explaining this further. If you have virtual meetings, you know the flow is hardly rapid-fire, social banter. It is still functional, but poor for maintaining work friendships.

Beyond maintenance, building new relationships is harder. New connections are harder to foster online. New remote employees may find those first few weeks harder. Companies can try to make use of employee engagement and onboarding tools to ease the burden on morale.

So, Should Telecommuting Be Permanent?

In a pair of words: it depends. For some industries, there will be clear benefits. Companies with remote work see up to 25% lower turnover. Three-quarters of people are less likely to leave a company with remote work options. Of course, there is also a wider talent pool for a company that allows fully-remote employees. As long as the time-zone isn’t prohibitive to your work, they could be anywhere. 

For the home worker, there may be even more benefits. Companies are offering hiring incentives to tempt remote workers. This competitive environment is driving direct-payments and relocation fees. In negotiating, remote employees are gaining more power and benefits

For others, the consequences will outweigh the benefits. Younger employees who want to establish social circles may want the in-person environment. Those who need face-to-face collaboration or education may struggle. Students seem to do clearly worse when remote.

Seeing the benefits of each work environment will take skillful management. Leadership will need to help employees feel supported. This will be especially true during transitions.

Many may find hybrid options to be a comfortable middle ground. Salesforce, for example, has instituted a flexible, 3 tier option. Office space is available for those who want it. Employees can telework part of the week. Working some days in-office and some at home see many of the benefits of each. 

A remote work environment will work for those who can make use of the resources and platforms available.  It will ultimately come down to your specific industry and circumstances. In doing so, weigh the pros and cons listed here, and use that to make an informed decision.

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