Eleven days before Michigan recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19, my daughter was born. My wife and I spent the first week adjusting to parenthood and welcoming friends and family into our home to meet her. The last thing on my mind was embracing permanent remote work.
By the end of that first week, the world began to change. People were talking about what was now being deemed a “pandemic.” States throughout the country were announcing new cases. By early the second week, after those first local cases were announced, it became evident that life was going to be changing drastically. The Friday morning before I was supposed to return to the office, I received a text from my boss telling me not to come in on Monday. With a newborn at home, she recognized I was in a vulnerable position. By that afternoon, my entire department had been asked to begin working remotely.
At the time, this new work-from-home lifestyle was scheduled for three weeks — until the schools in Michigan opened back up. But as the state of emergency continued to be extended, so too did our directions to stay home. It has now been over seven months of remote work with many more ahead.
Remote work now feels normal. For the first time in my professional career, I have agency over my work life. Unfortunately, this is due to a global pandemic that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and sickened millions more. But this pandemic has thrust the economy of knowledge workers a handful of years or more into the future.
Before I jump into the pros and cons of permanent remote work, it’s important to make a distinction between a remote workforce in pandemic mode vs. a remote workforce post-pandemic. By post-pandemic, I mean when kids are back in school and we receive more clarity on the current uncertainty of the future. Trying to manage a full workday while toddlers squirm around the house and kids ask for help with their virtual learning is far from ideal. Adding to this imperfect situation is the lack of outlets outside of work. Gyms closed, restaurants have shuttered, movie theaters were barred from opening.
None of this should detract from realizing the benefits we have just stumbled upon as a society.
Benefits of Workers Returning to the Office
Before I get into the benefits of permanent remote work, I thought it was important to note that there are certainly still benefits of having employees return to the office — and opponents of permanent remote work will be quick to point them out. Many of these articles that urge returning to pre-COVID work culture sound, to me, to be riddled with pessimism or a lack of trust in employees. Those types of people should not detract from the true benefits of returning to the office.
Despite the scores of benefits that remote work provides, I am not blinded to the reality of what we could be losing by making the permanent switch. Nearly every article I have read or person I have spoken with about the benefits of returning to the office points out the same thing: You miss the spontaneous social interactions, such as bumping into a coworker at the coffee station, that can help you network, build camaraderie or unexpectedly solve a problem.
Amanda Mull highlights this in her article “A Cubicle Never Looked So Good,” from the October 2020 issue of The Atlantic. It seemed to drive home the point that socialization with coworkers and with other industry professionals is difficult while working remotely. Though her article largely relies on personal anecdotes and testimonials from researchers rather than hard statistics, it is not unreasonable to see the truth behind her argument. Humans are social creatures, after all, and replacing face-to-face contact with emails, IMs, phone calls and video conferences is not quite the same level of interaction.
Since the factory model 40-hour work week took root in society, employees have been forced to incorporate their coworkers into some of the closest fabrics of their social circles. That is a natural phenomenon when you spend such a large portion of your time with the same people. This dynamic would surely change with permanent remote work, though I would argue that it would not necessarily be a negative change. Rather than coworkers making up a large portion of our social circles, we would have the agency to control our own social lives based on our passions. (Think neighbors, book clubs, churches, golf leagues, etc.)
Another dynamic that permanent remote work can make more difficult is the work-life balance. In a study conducted on its own employees working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Microsoft found that workers were putting in, on average, an additional four hours per week compared to pre-pandemic data. There was also a shift in working time, with more employees spreading their hours out over the course of a day and into the evening and night, compared to a rigid 9-to-5 schedule.
This isn’t surprising — with the elimination of commute, some of those employees are putting the time savings back into their work. But the main concern with this shifting of working structure is ensuring that employees are still able to “turn off” their work and separate their work lives from their personal lives without leaving their homes.
All this said, I want to be clear that putting these benefits of returning to the office ahead of the numerous benefits of a permanent remote workforce is simply allowing loss aversion to supersede what is clearly progress toward a more sustainable, flexible and innovative new norm of permanent remote work.
Why Workers Should Embrace Permanent Remote Work
In late March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic strengthened its grip on the United States and the world, Matt Mullenweg joined Sam Harris on his “Making Sense” podcast to discuss what they called “The New Future of Work.” Mullenweg, who founded Automattic — the company that owns WordPress.com — has what he calls a “fully distributed team.” He uses the term ‘distributed’ rather than ‘remote’, but it is in concept the same thing.
Automattic uses a distributed team rather than a factory work environment, which Mullenweg argues is ineffective for knowledge workers and lowers employee autonomy. He has broken down successful teams into three factors: Mastery, autonomy and purpose.
Mastery is being able to get your job done and continually grow. Purpose is the feeling that you are working for something bigger than a paycheck. Neither of these qualities require a permanent remote workforce to achieve. However, the third quality, autonomy, which is the freedom and agency to control your own work and environment, is nearly impossible to offer employees in a traditional office setting.
That is why establishing permanent remote work as a new norm is so important. Fostering a successful team, not only from a performance standpoint but also from a mental health view, is dependent upon it. According to the Microsoft study, stress and negative emotions are each down at least 10% since the onset of their switch to remote work, while self-efficacy is up more than 10%. In another study conducted in China over two years, employees working from home saw a 13% increase in production and a 50% higher retention rate.
At the core of the issue is the outdated factory model of work, a rigid schedule where workers who have nearly no agency over their work are judged almost entirely by their input. On Henry Ford’s assembly lines, for example, if you were not physically present to do your job, the job did not get completed. Mullenweg argues that instead of adhering to this norm, we should instead shift to a distributed work model that evaluates employees based on their output, regardless of what their work schedule looks like.
Using output as an evaluation method means adopting new KPIs. The goal is to remove the biases that exist in current in-person office cultures, so that employees are treated fairly based on merit. No longer should things like dressing well, punctuality and extroversion be used to set one employee apart from others. Instead, KPIs should focus on the actual work that was completed and how it helped the company to be successful.
The most successful companies understand all of this. They look at the data, weigh the benefits and have ultimately made the decision to support permanent remote work (this is what Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter have all done, and Amazon is close behind, offering remote work at least through June 2021).
Ultimately, there is a long list of benefits that permanent remote work offers. It includes increased productivity, higher employee retention, lower stress, improved mental health and financial savings. It eliminates commutes that waste both time and money, and add stress and pollution. Ideally, permanent remote work also offers employees the opportunity to structure their day to make themselves more successful and happier, leading to a better work-life balance.
One often overlooked benefit to permanent remote work, particularly in today’s social climate, is the improved inclusivity. Because companies would no longer be dependent on location during their hiring process, they could branch out to improve diversity. People from all geographic locations, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds could be hired, rather than needlessly (and often unjustly) limiting the candidate pool.
It’s important, when understanding the benefits of permanent remote work, to also understand the direction of the economy. Since 2010, ‘gig economy workers’ have increased by 15%, according to ADP. In 2019, these gig workers made up 16% of the US workforce. Why is this the case? Well, people are increasingly turning to work that offers more flexibility and freedom while fostering their passions.
There is no reason traditional employment cannot offer the same things.
Why Employers Should Embrace a Permanent Remote Workforce
In his memoir The Ride of a Lifetime, former Disney CEO Robert Iger tells the story about sitting in an Apple conference room with Steve Jobs in 2005. They were making a pros and cons list about a potential Disney acquisition of Pixar. When the session was over, Iger felt discouraged by the sheer number of cons Jobs had scribbled on the white board. That’s when Jobs said, “A few solid pros are more powerful than dozens of cons.”
Though in the case of remote work I do not believe the cons outnumber the pros — in fact, I think it is undoubtedly and overwhelmingly the opposite — the point that Jobs made is clear. Shifting to a permanent remote workforce is about opening our minds to what the future of knowledge work can look like. For employers, it means an opportunity to reenvision how they are perceived both internally and externally (and save some serious cash, as one study estimated that employees working remotely even just 50% of the time would save companies upwards of $11,000 per year per employee).
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, no societal institution is very well trusted by its employees and customers. These institutions include business, government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media. In fact, for the two factors of trust that are measured — ethics and competence — only business is seen as competent and only NGOs are seen as ethical. None are seen as both.
Fixing this issue of trust will need to be addressed both inside and outside of organizations and industries, but we are at an unprecedented moment in history when employers have the ability to increase trust within their own ranks.
Loyalty for both employers and employees has been eroding for decades, and where we are currently in society it is nearly gone, according to Rick Wartzman in an interview with the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business.
But a permanent remote workforce could be just the antidote to this troubling trend. We already know that working remotely can improve employee productivity and happiness, but for employers it can also improve employee retention. Compared with onsite workers, remote workers are 13% more likely to stay in their job for the next five years, saving employers both time and money. For millenials, which make up the largest segment of the current labor force, 82% said they would have more company loyality if employers increased their flexibility.
Remote work is one of the biggest perks employers can provide to their employees. But it’s also difficult for some companies to be forward-thinking and courageous enough to make such broad scale changes.
Humans are more prone to loss aversion than acquiring equivalent gains, and companies are run by humans. It’s natural for employers to focus on what remote work would be taking away from their previous company structure or culture. However, as I have outlined above, the pros of making the switch to permanent remote work — at least for employees whose jobs allow it — far outweigh the cons.
(By the way, I wrote this article with the eight hours per week that I save by eliminating my daily commute.)