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It's been about a year since COVID-19 changed everything for everyone throughout the world.
Today, virtually every person is still feeling the pandemic's ripple effects that caught families, businesses, hospitals, and so much more off guard. However, one of the most significant adjustments is how COVID-19 forced employers and employees alike to redefine what a workplace looks like.
In March 2020, the pandemic sent U.S. employers scrambling to keep their businesses afloat, maintain their customer base, and keep their workers safe. Telecommuting became a lifeline for operations that had long been resistant to remote arrangements in the past. Office buildings shut down, and workers were asked to carry out their jobs from home.
Seemingly overnight, morning commutes went from sitting in rush hour traffic to walking from the bed to the home office. Pajamas replaced ironed shirts and ties. Makeshift offices in the kitchen replaced cubicles. And Zoom calls and Slack messages became the new normal for employees used to in-office brainstorms and water cooler chats.
A year later, everything and nothing has changed. At the start of 2020, only 3.4% of Americans worked remotely. Over the course of the year, as COVID-19 surged, that number skyrocketed to 42%.
As the world starts to see the light at the end of a very long tunnel, all of these statistics raise one pretty important question — will workplaces ever revert to their pre-pandemic form? Or is remote work here to stay?
In this article, we break down the future of remote working, what it means for employees and employers, and how businesses can successfully navigate 2021's new workplace to meet post-pandemic expectations.
According to a recent survey by Gartner, 74% of employers plan to permanently shift a portion, if not all, of their employees to remote work after the COVID-19 crisis ends. It turns out a lot of employees would be thrilled with that permanent shift. A recent survey found that 65% of employees would like to continue working remotely full time after the pandemic, while 31% would prefer a hybrid format.
What's driving the preference for remote work? For starters, most people have found that they can perform many of their tasks from home, which can make it hard to go back to long commutes, stuffy cubicles, and rigid hours. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that the transition to remote work hasn't been that difficult after all. This shift helped employees boost productivity while simultaneously giving them more control over how they use their time.
It's no surprise, then, to learn that many companies are choosing to extend work-from-home policies long after the pandemic is over — and big tech companies are leading the pack.
Twitter told employees in May of last year that they could work from home indefinitely. Square adopted a similar policy, letting employees work remotely even after offices reopen. In July 2020, Zillow announced it would offer employees the ability to work from home permanently. Meanwhile, Microsoft decided to take a slightly different approach, making remote work, at least part of the time, the new standard.
This shift also included more schedule flexibility, giving employees more freedom to choose the hours and days they work. Companies like Spotify, Shopify, and Slack have also adopted permanent remote work policies or some kind of hybrid flexibility.
It's clear that remote work is here to stay for many employees throughout the world. But what does that actually mean long-term when it comes to productivity, work-life balance, team camaraderie, and other vital employee (and employer) success metrics?
Here's a breakdown of the good and bad that could come with the ongoing shift to remote work environments.
For many employees working remotely, there are fewer distractions, less noise, and additional hours to get the job done. In fact, 95% of employees surveyed by the FlexJobs SuperSuvery indicated working from home during COVID-19 led to higher or the same level of productivity, with many citing fewer interruptions (68%), more focus (63%), a quieter work environment (68%), and a more comfortable workplace (66%).
No commutes and a slower start to the morning have led to more personal time and a better work-life balance. The same FlexJobs SuperSurvey revealed that 79% of respondents believe the lack of a commute has made their lives better, while another 72% enjoy the lack of commuting costs. Given that 36% of respondents reported pre-COVID round-trip commutes of two or more hours, it's not surprising that this newfound freedom has made workers happier, giving them more time to spend with family, partners, and pets.
People who work from home (even just part of the time) can save around $4,000 per year by eliminating things like gas, parking fees, lunches, and a professional wardrobe from their regular spending. Those savings extend to employers, too. According to Global Workplace Analytics, companies can save as much as $11,000 per year for every remote employee.
Not everyone's at-home life is conducive to a peaceful work environment. Whether you have a loud dog at home, toddlers, or share a home office space with your partner, it can be challenging for many employees to get the quiet time they need to focus on the tasks at hand.
Having your laptop always accessible in a blended home/office environment can lead to overworking, as the beginning and end of the workday start to feel indistinct. A study conducted by a team at Microsoft found that in the four months after the team moved to remote work in March 2020, employees worked an average of four more hours a week and attended more meetings.
For some, Zoom meetings and Slack messages just aren't a good enough substitute for face-to-face interaction, and many employees feel isolated in their remote work environment. Specifically, 49% of those surveyed in the FlexJobs SuperSurvey said they miss seeing their colleagues, 14% said they miss water cooler chats, and 11% reported feeling lonely.
While more and more employees and employers are ready for the permanent shift to remote work, the change won't just happen on its own. For remote work to succeed long after the pandemic has ended, companies need to invest time and effort into making it work. Here are a few recommended steps businesses can take now to safely reopen their business and ensure a flexible work environment now and into the future.
After the pandemic finally ends, many businesses will likely shift to a hybrid model in which employees work from home some days and come to the office on others. By adopting a hybrid model of remote work, businesses and employees can reap the benefits of working remotely (like no commutes and better work-life balance) while avoiding some of the downsides (like isolation and lack of camaraderie).
The at-home versus in-office balance will vary by industry and the type of work, but the goal is to find the unique blend that works for your business. Gallup research recommends spending 60-80% of time remote. In other words, employees can work from home three or four days a week and spend the remaining one or two days in the office.
Supporting well-structured communication is crucial in a remote work world. For example, set clear expectations about when to host Zoom meetings versus when a message or task can be communicated via email or Slack.
Companies should also set guidelines for how often they communicate. Establish consistency with communication by setting regular check-ins or team meetings so employees don't feel detached or isolated.
Lastly, find ways to establish a sense of community — even when you can't be in the same physical location. Keep the team spirit alive by arranging happy hours, creating a Slack channel where you encourage employees to share jokes, music, and personal photos, or even start a friendly challenge that everyone can participate in together.
The processes, procedures, and protocols you were used to in the office might not apply anymore — and that's OK! Maybe employees need to shift their hours around to take care of their kids. Or perhaps you can streamline a review process by implementing new project management software. Whatever the situation, understand that remaining flexible and open to new ideas can make all the difference in creating a thriving remote environment.
As the entire world slowly shakes the dust off after a year of uncertainty, one thing is more clear now than ever before: To succeed, you need to be flexible. For many businesses, that means pivoting from the traditional workplace and into a new remote environment — one that fosters more balance, freedom, and employee trust. Employers that embrace this new normal will be the ones to thrive now and well into the future.
To continue this path of future post-pandemic thinking, check out these articles about how to maintain relationships with your customers while working remotely and the businesses that will take off once we move past this pandemic. You can find both of these topics and more in our Learning Center.
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