Don't expect the days of working from home to end once the pandemic has passed. In fact, some job analysts think the remote-working environment will continue to thrive long after the coronavirus diminishes.
"Remote work has been a growing trend in the workforce in recent years. However, until now, it has not been widely adopted. The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent social isolation measures have caused companies to explore remote work options and implement collaborative tools in an attempt to sustain business through the crisis," says Rick Gibbs, a performance specialist with Insperity, a human-resource solutions firm based in Houston, Texas. "As the number of remote workers increases and teams prove they can maintain productivity outside the office, some employers may consider remote work as a permanent solution."
Gibbs admits that not all companies will want to keep all of their employees out of the office. "This may not be a valid option for every organization or individual. For example, employees who have little or no technological skills may struggle with an entirely remote setup that demands an aptitude in various teamwork platforms and tools," he says.
Sociologist Jeanne Hurlbert, Ph.D., president of Hurlbert Consulting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, predicts a net increase in individuals working remotely after the pandemic passes but says the extent of permanent future remote workers depends largely on how companies manage their workers in the present. "Both companies and workers must focus on ensuring that employees remain as connected as possible to their co-workers and encourage them also to stay in touch with friends and family," says Hurlbert, who taught social science and marketing at Louisiana State University for more than 25 years. "This will combat the isolation effects that can harm not only employees' productivity but also their health."
Hurlbert points to research on how social networks and social support reduced the stressful effects after Hurricane Katrina, which showed that individuals who had better social support fared much better than those who had received little to none. The latter group reported higher levels of sadness, had more trouble sleeping, found it difficult to get started each day, had difficulties focusing on a task, felt blue more often and experienced other issues. "One can easily see how these symptoms could impact productivity and well-being," says Hurlbert. "The net effect, then, will depend in part upon how well companies structure remote work during the pandemic and how well employees combat the isolation."
To help create a work-based support system, Hurlbert suggests companies form virtual teams. "The greater the degree to which employees connect by phone or, ideally, through video conferencing, the more effectively they can work together to solve problems," Hurlbert says. "Our research also shows that workers with more co-worker connections enjoy higher job satisfaction."
Not only will business owners learn to value the effectiveness of employees who work from home, but they'll also be looking for ways to cut costs, including reducing their overhead costs for expensive office leases. "This could be an option for companies as they attempt to rebound from the current business environment," says Gibbs.
Companies that own property may see an advantage in reducing their on-site workforce if they can save costs by not maintaining their existing facility. They could also increase revenue by leasing out existing space. If a company is still interested in using a brick-and-mortar location, they might negotiate a better deal because of a reduction in necessary space due to rotating workers.
But that's not to say companies truly interested in ramping up their online options won't incur new costs. "[Companies should expect to pay] a dramatic increase in expenditures on teleconferencing capability to reduce travel and lodging expenses locally, regionally, domestically and internationally, particularly with the emergence of virtual or hologram technology, creating an almost 'you are there' environment," says Albert Goldson, executive director of Indo-Brazilian Associates, a global risk-management firm.
Remote today vs. remote tomorrow
Josh Calder, a futurist with Foresight Alliance, a future-focused consulting firm in Washington, D.C., says employees recently forced to work from home aren't getting a true picture of the work-from-home experience because they have to be mindful of others currently at home as well. "More people will discover actual working from home when one's partner and kids are not there to bother you," says Calder. "It's not really telework until you aren't managing the kids simultaneously."
Still, Calder says that some of the alleged negatives of working at home have been and continue to be minimized, due to their increasing occurrences. "We've discovered that it's not catastrophic to have pets and kids intrude on work meetings or even national TV and radio broadcasts," he says.
But the very issues Calder mentions, while often easy to overcome, could affect how management views its remote workers. "One effect that may happen is that this large work-from-home experiment may be viewed negatively by both employers and employees alike, given that it was necessary as part of a larger quarantining with lots of distractions such as children home from daycare or school as well as the larger worries about the pandemic," says Carlos Castelán, managing Director of The Navio Group, a retail business consulting firm. "In many ways, this is not reflective of the typical work from home experience that many others experience during more normal times."
If — or when — the workforce becomes more remote, responsibilities to adapt to the new, more permanent reality will have to be shared by both employer and employee. “I think things will go back to normal in about six months, but the companies that are still around will have adapted to the flexible work option so they’re prepared for a similar event in the future,” says Scott Swedberg, CEO of The Job Sauce, a career-services company in San Diego, California.
The current work-from-home environment also gives an advantage to employees who had previously asked for remote hours and were turned down. “Workers who were told their jobs cannot be worked remotely or from home have found new ground to request this option because they’ve learned their job, in fact, can be worked remotely,” says Kirby Wilkerson, digital media manager at The Impact Kind, a marketing and public relations firm in Canton, Michigan. “Hopefully disabled workers will find more opportunities to apply and work remotely after this remote revolution.”
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