More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, some companies have gone from wondering if employees should leave the office to pondering if they should come back at all.
“This prolonged work-from-home period has changed attitudes toward what remote work is, and what can be done in the future,” said Roshni Raveendhran, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
Raveendhran conducts research on the future of work – particularly how technological advancements influence companies and employees – and also consults with company executives who are now weighing if and how their employees should return to work.
We spoke with her about how views on remote work have changed among companies that were able to work remotely, and what might work best for employees and employers going forward.
Q. How might this prolonged work-from-home period change attitudes toward remote work in industries that are able to accommodate that?
A. Over the last few months, I have been in conversations with several companies that are asking very similar questions, and toying with the idea of a hybrid approach or more permanent remote work for their employees.
Previously, remote work was seen as more of a privilege or a perk, but these circumstances have proved that remote work is possible for prolonged periods of time, and that it does not in fact bring down productivity. Several studies have shown that productivity has actually increased. One from Harvard Business School found that the average workday increased by 8.2%, and that employees sent more emails per day while working from home – which of course poses its own set of challenges.
I think companies have realized that remote work can save costs by cutting down on office expenses or travel, and that it does not hurt productivity. So, it comes down to what employees actually want, and that is what companies need to seriously consider. What model works best for their employees? How can they match employees’ needs to the needs of the business? So far, it seems that many people see a hybrid model, combining remote and office work, as an optimal solution.
Q. From an employee perspective, what are some important concerns or trends you have noticed?
A. Employees have also realized that their productivity did not go down – and may have actually increased – and many have struggled to find a balance or to impose separation between their work and home lives. There is also a tradeoff between productivity and social connection with colleagues, which many have missed since being in the office.
Balancing those tradeoffs will come down to individual preferences that have been solidified over more than a year of this life. Some employees have found that they prefer going into an office and having that forced separation between work and home; others have found that they prefer a more flexible schedule and like finishing up work at night after their kids go to bed, for example. My advice to companies is to really attend to those preferences and work to understand what individual employees want and need. This cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution, and companies that don’t pay attention to shifts in their employees’ mindset and preferences will run into problems.
Another thing that really stands out is autonomy. When companies first shifted to remote work, many were tempted to use tracking software or other technology to track employees’ productivity. I recently published research examining how such tracking could influence employees.
Q. What did you find?
A. Across several studies, we found that people actually wanted to get feedback about their own behaviors, if that feedback was solely for informational purposes. Employees were interested to know, for example, if they were most productive in the morning or later in the day. That kind of knowledge actually had a positive effect on intrinsic motivation.
However, most companies were implementing tracking software not just for informational purposes, but for evaluative purposes. That proved very demotivating for employees. They did not feel autonomous in any way, and it had a negative effect on their work and motivation.
To me, the study illustrated that tracking is a very slippery slope, and that autonomy is the more important consideration.
Q. If remote work does become more common in the long term, how could that change where and how we work?
A. I have done other research on how leaders are using virtual reality technology, which could allow coworkers to be in different locations but in the same collaboration space, even with interactive avatars. This technology could compensate in some ways for a lack of physical, social connection in the workplace, while allowing employees flexibility and autonomy in where they live and how they work. I think more companies will start to explore these technologies.
Q. How could a shift to remote work affect women in the workforce? We are already hearing that the pandemic, particularly the pressures of child care with schools closed, have driven many women from the workforce.
A. I have seen research on both sides, with some women reporting that they would prefer the flexibility of remote work, while others prefer a strong separation between work and home life. To me, the most important thing is to give women, and all employees, the opportunity to make that choice – to find the combination of autonomy and flexibility that works for them.
Essentially, companies need to optimize for three things – productivity, autonomy and social connection. If employers can be thoughtful about that, then they can initiate a program that would allow them to save on costs while creating a more flexible work environment.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?
A. If companies do shift to more remote work, there will likely be significant cost savings in terms of office space, utilities and travel. One question that I have been hoping to hear from companies, but have not heard much of, is: How are we going to use that money? Can you use those cost savings to reinvest in your employees, and to promote autonomy, productivity and social connection? Can you invest in your employees’ technology, or help them set up a home office?
I think it is really important for employers to be mindful of how they reinvest in their employees. Otherwise, we will have a lopsided equation where companies let employees work remotely, but remote employees do not feel as supported or energized.