Survey upon survey would lead us to believe that workers aren’t just happier working from home, we’re far more productive, too. For instance, a June 2020 PwC survey finds that 44% of executives believe their “employees have become more productive” during the crisis—a perspective that has already led to many well-known tech companies announcing that employees will be able to work from home well into 2021, and even long after COVID-19 is brought under control.
Long-term Remote Options on the Rise
As employees shifted to working entirely from home in large numbers, it wasn’t long before they realized the many benefits the arrangement affords, from better work/life balance and less time spent commuting to fewer interruptions from colleagues. As such, most now say they would prefer to be able to continue working remotely as offices slowly reopen. In fact, the PwC survey notes that 83% would like “to work from home at least one day a week.”
On the employer side, companies are accommodating these preferences by adjusting their policies and planning their business investments accordingly. A Willis Towers Watson survey reports that employers anticipate “19% of their workforce to be full-time employees working from home post-COVID-19,” nearly triple the rate prior to the pandemic. A study commissioned by Xerox to gather the opinions of 600 IT leaders reveals that more than half (56%) are increasing their IT budgets in order to support employee needs as a result of the switch to hybrid and fully remote work models.
Remote preferences are also playing out in terms of job postings and searches. LinkedIn says that remote job postings have “nearly tripled since March” globally, while the United States has witnessed a 2.2x increase in remote job postings. Likewise, searches for remote work opportunities are also on the rise, registering an increase of roughly 60%.
What Will Office Life Look Like Post-COVID-19?
The reality is that it’s just too early to predict, especially when many of the current insights that decisions are being based on involve self-reported data. Further, the responses represent viewpoints that are exclusive to the current environment rather than longer-term trends and outcomes, such as:
- What happens when children return to school onsite permanently? Will parents feel more isolated than they do now as they juggle work alongside helping their children with remote learning?
- Will employees remain as productive as the economy stabilizes and they feel less pressure to perform in order to avoid being laid off?
- How effective will managers be once working from home arrangements become permanent, especially as related to team and individual performance?
One other factor to note is that discussions regarding the benefits of remote working have primarily been centered around productivity with less emphasis placed on the risks to innovation when face-to-face collaborations are significantly reduced.
Recently, productivity and collaboration analytics firm Worklytics detailed implications from its organizational network analysis (ONA) program that was designed to uncover the key drivers of employee engagement and how working from home is influencing these drivers. However, rather than relying on self-report data, Worklytics analyzed large data sets across a range network tools, from calendars, email and instant messaging applications to document storage systems, intranets and project management software. Among the trends Worklytics identified when reviewing data for the first six months of 2020:
- Increases were seen in manager responsiveness, number of meetings, interruptions, after-hours email and workday length
- Decreases were identified in the number of people included in meetings, time for focused work and work activity
With the exception of manager responsiveness and meeting size, these trends point to a rise in the factors known to work against productivity. However, most striking is the sharp decline found in cross-functional collaborations, as Worklytics’ analysis shows that the average number of cross-functional collaborators decreased from 21 in early February to fewer than 15 by the end of May. Should this decline continue, it’s likely to become more concerning to executives given the link between cross-functional collaboration and innovation, especially the “chance” collaborations that are more likely to take place in an office setting. (Remember when Yahoo pulled an about-face on its work-at-home policy for this very reason?)
So, perhaps the rush to declare the death of the office is a bit premature. As management professor Peter Cappelli noted in May, he’s skeptical that we’ll continue to move in the direction of large-scale, permanent work-from-home arrangements, believing instead that given a job market that favors management and in which “employees will do anything to keep their jobs,” we’ll see a return to the office as our primary place of work.