These days, going to work is more likely to mean walking to one’s home office rather than commuting to a high-rise or an office park. “Business as usual” is anything but.
With COVID-19 throwing the world into lockdown earlier this year, employers and employees had to adapt quickly to keep companies afloat, jobs intact and staff safe with flexible work-from-home arrangements.
All signs indicate that businesses won’t return to full-time in-office working mode for quite a while – if ever – not only for public health concerns but because more and more are realizing that remote work is beneficial to employees, employers, the economy and the environment.
“Nearly 43 percent of full-time American employees say they want to work remotely more often, even after the economy has reopened,” according to an April survey by GetAbstract.com.
Adds Andrew Savikas, chief strategy officer at GetAbstract.com: “Our survey is the tip of the iceberg on the seismic, long-term changes the coronavirus pandemic is bringing to how people work, cities develop and employers invest in offices and technology.”
To explore the work-from-home phenomenon, we talked to area experts and remote workers about its impact on businesses and employees, the overall effect on the economy and where we stand going forward.
Nearly half the U.S. labor force – 42 percent – is now working from home full-time, according to Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom.
Before the pandemic, “low-intensity telecommuting” – people working from home one or two days a week – had already been increasing, says Ravi Gajendran, associate professor in the Department of Global Leadership and Management in the College of Business at Florida International University in Miami.
“What we’re seeing now is full-time, high-intensity five-days-a-week telecommuting. What I believe is going to unfold is there will be more people working remotely at least part of the time than ever before, but I don’t see remote work being the most normative way of working. There’s going to be an in-between.”
This will require companies to undergo a culture shift, he says. One of the biggest roadblocks for employers transitioning to remote work, according to Gajendran, is resolving questions like: How do you evaluate employees you no longer see? How do you set goals and monitor output? How much flexibility do you allow in terms of working hours?
“Managers need to adjust to a new style of supervision,” he says. “We have to figure out: How does it work in our organizational context? It’s as much a business arrangement as it is a perk or benefit for employees. Management needs to recognize that people can be productive – perhaps more productive – when working from home.”
The primary concern of employers is the erroneous fear that workers will slack off while working at home, Gajendran says.
“Once top management and middle management see that people still can get a substantial part of their tasks done remotely, especially for the knowledge-based worker, there’s going to be more acceptance for people working remotely.”
Plenty Of Pros
Another crucial part of the work-from-home equation is that businesses are quickly realizing it can be an opportunity for everyone to save money.
“A typical employer can save about $11,000 per year for every person who works remotely half of the time,” according to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com. “Employees can save between $2,500 and $4,000 a year [by working remotely half the time] and even more if they are able to move to a less expensive area and work remotely full-time.”
Upgrading equipment and connectivity for remote employees is not a high price to pay if it means companies can considerably shrink their office footprint, Gajendran says: “When things start impacting the bottom line directly, top management takes notice.”
Nancy Proffitt, an executive coach and CEO of Proffitt Management Solutions in West Palm Beach, agrees: “I am already hearing from people who’ve revamped systems and processes to work from home.”
Her clients report that, if they need to hold in-person staff meetings, they simply rent open office space, conference rooms or hotel rooms.
The top five perks of working from home – according to a global poll of 2,250 office workers earlier this year, conducted by OnePoll and GoTo by LogMeIn – are the flexible schedule, saving money, having access to a kitchen, wearing whatever they want and completing weekend to-dos.
The poll also found that more than 75 percent of respondents felt guilty about the environmental impact of their daily commute. With the average worker surveyed spending nearly an hour commuting each day, that’s five hours a week that could be spent working, with family or doing other activities.
“We’ve long seen the benefits of remote work to allow employees to have more flexible schedules, but as most of the world has turned to full-time remote working amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the unexpected benefits is the impact this is already having on the environment,” says Mark Strassman, senior vice president and general manager for Unified Communications & Collaboration at LogMeIn.
According to Gajendran’s research, the primary reason employees prefer working from home is autonomy.
“Employees will be more satisfied and productive because of the autonomy they enjoy to work remotely, away from supervision,” he says. “When you take control systems that exist in the office and try to impose that on remote work, then it’s not going to succeed. You have to empower your employees, trust them and manage them by output and objectives rather than by supervision.”
With many schools and daycares closed during the pandemic, having flexible hours has been critical for working parents. Florida State University drew backlash in June when it announced that employees couldn’t care for children while working remotely. It quickly backtracked and clarified its policy.
Tom Pence, a CPA and shareholder of the accounting firm Caler, Donten, Levine, Cohen, Porter & Veil, P.A., in West Palm Beach, understands the needs and stresses of working parents during this time. He and his wife, Amanda, a speech and language therapist with the School District of Palm Beach County, have two young sons and are currently juggling childcare, schoolwork and their careers. While his wife is teaching three days a week, Pence is caring for the children. On those days, he doesn’t start work until 1 p.m., but he goes late into the night.
With offices in West Palm Beach and Stuart, the company was already set up to work remotely. So, when the pandemic hit, it simply had to bolster and tweak the remote work system it had in place. Forty percent to 50 percent of its 100 employees have continued to work in the office throughout the pandemic, with the remainder working remotely or on a flexible schedule.
“We work in an industry that has certain demands,” says Pence. “As a firm, we’re constantly evaluating what we’re doing and trying to adjust and improve to help our personnel and their families.”
Tyler Grodin, 25, is now in his second year as a Boca Raton-based consultant for the Miami office of Deloitte Consulting, LLP. His specialty is helping businesses and institutions transition to the cloud-based software Workday. He accepted the job expecting to travel three weeks a month, Monday through Thursday. Depending on client needs, Fridays can be spent working from home.
“I got into consulting because I didn’t want the 9-5 routine in a cubicle,” Grodin says.
Although he enjoys traveling, it was a nice break to stay home once the pandemic hit, he says: “It was the first time I spent any significant time home alone. I got to go grocery shopping!”
Grodin, who has a master’s degree in international business from the University of Miami, adapted quickly to the remote arrangement.
“The hardest part is getting our clients to adjust,” he says. “It took four to six weeks to get everyone onboard and comfortable. They are used to seeing people every day. For a number of clients, if they can’t see you, are you delivering value?”
The lack of interpersonal contact is one of the biggest drawbacks of remote work. However, tech solutions such as video conferencing and virtual happy hours mitigate that isolation and help clients get to know their consultants, Grodin says.
Burnout is a risk, despite company initiatives to promote employee well-being. The CEO of Deloitte recently released a statement saying that working from home doesn’t mean working all the time.
“It’s difficult to turn off at the end of the day,” Grodin says. “You still feel like you’re always on call when working from home. That’s a very gray area across a lot of industries.”
He believes permanent changes will be made post-pandemic. Traveling only one week a month would suit him just fine.
“People are realizing the same deliverables are being done, but they can still see their families at night and have a home-cooked meal,” he says.
The Sweet Spot
Reports from various sectors indicate that remote work has been so successful during the pandemic that it’ll be the new standard going forward, with many favoring hybrid systems (employees working remotely some days and in-office other days).
James Gorman, CEO of Morgan Stanley, recently told CNBC: “My longer-term hope for the start of the year globally is to have about 50 percent of our employees in the offices, not every day of the week.”
Gajendran’s research concurs: As long as employees are working from home less than 50 percent of the time, “there are a lot of good outcomes. The only downside we find for remote work is that, more than 50 percent of the time, your relationships with co-workers suffer. The sweet spot is one to two days a week, and the rest of the time in the office.” O