The debate is no longer related to the pandemic but to the future. For companies and workers, it may be a matter of balance as allowed by the nature of each specific business.
The COVID-19 pandemic transformed the labor market worldwide, as an unprecedented number of organizations shuttered workplaces, and working remotely became “the new normal” for nearly half (48%) of employees. Almost three years on, many companies have acknowledged that flexible work is now an inseparable aspect of the modern working world. However, a growing number of organizations and well-known business leaders are pushing for a return to in-person work.
As the pandemic winds down, the remote work debate has become deeply polarized, and 2023 will probably be a critical year in what the media has dubbed the “Return-to-Office War.” Among the world’s most famous companies, many now require employees to come into the office more frequently in what is a “hybrid” approach to remote work. Apple, Amazon, Disney, Google, HSBC, J.P. Morgan, Meta, and Microsoft are taking this track, while other companies like Netflix, SpaceX, Tesla, and Twitter are rigidly opposing remote work. Elon Musk, the CEO of the latter three, recently made headlines when he mandated a minimum of 40 hours of in-office work for his employees —despite Musk’s earlier claim, Twitter instructed employees to work remotely as the company shut down some of its offices as part of cost-cutting measures.
Every company must recognize that the debate about remote versus in-person work is no longer related to the pandemic but to the future of work and related issues covering management, team building, work environment, and even a clash between generations. As the latest edition of Mckinsey’s American Opportunity Survey points out, flexibility is now a word highly valued by most workers. But what might be the long-term implications of it? To answer this question, we must first consider the indisputable pros and cons of remote work. Here are some of them:
Companies that embraced remote work soon discovered that one of the most significant benefits it offers is access to talent from virtually anywhere. For business owners and human resources specialists, remote work means a broader candidate pool and access to remote talent: workers with skills and knowledge that might not be commonly found in a company’s area of operation can also be considered for a position.
Access to remote talent can also help companies keep costs stable or even reduce them. Hiring a professional based in another city, state, or country may require less funds than hiring someone from a place with a higher cost of living. Additionally, as many companies realized, remote work enabled them to reduce or eliminate the costs of maintaining physical office space.
Companies operating only with in-person work eventually must deal with space limitations when the business growth demands a new building or remodeling of the current office to place new employees. On the other hand, remote work can favor and accelerate business growth by eliminating the need for more space in the office.
The convenience of hiring employees from virtually anywhere in the world comes with a possible drawback: having to comply with various —and potentially competing— regulatory requirements. These may include different minimum wage rates, payroll requirements, licenses, and tax laws, just to mention a few. So before hiring a remote employee, a company needs to seek legal advice on a number of different issues.
In a physical office, people have a consistent and predictable work environment. Employees can access similar technology, equipment, routines, and work culture. You’ll know your employees are using your secure Wi-Fi network, surrounded by other company personnel. Operating remotely, a business may have to deal with unsecured Wi-Fi networks or employees working from inadequate spaces, for example.
While remote work usually enables easier hiring, it makes it harder for team members to interact closely and create bonds with each other. Communicating through tools like Zoom, Google Meet, or Slack is not the same as in-person talking, informal chats, or lunch gatherings. For many people, interactions aren’t spontaneous when using connectivity applications. Every company operating remotely must consider this issue and provide opportunities for team members to regularly discuss life outside of work, the challenges of working from home, or any other topics they might want to share.
Other factors can either be a pro or a con depending on how they are addressed. For example, take mental health and work-life balance. Remote work can make employees feel better due to more flexibility. However, it can harm mental health if employees feel isolated. Remote workers can adapt routines to their personal needs, but sometimes it can be hard to manage the boundaries of work and life. It's a matter that requires attention and care from all those involved.
Many CEOs and business leaders have recently been vocal about their concerns regarding the effects of remote work on productivity and innovation. Some have directly linked remote work to poor performance, arguing that employees are less productive when they work from home or anywhere outside the office. Contrary to this assumption, a wealth of studies have shown productivity while working remotely from home is better than working in an office.
A recent survey from Slack’s think tank Future Forum found that workers with complete flexibility showed 29% higher productivity scores than employees with no flexibility at all, while remote and hybrid workers report 4% higher productivity than those working entirely in the office. The same study also indicates that employees with flexible schedules reported a 53% greater ability to focus on work tasks. Other recent research suggests that remote work doesn’t negatively affect productivity, according to a study by Texas A&M University School of Public Health. Before the pandemic, a Stanford University study of 16,000 employees at a Chinese travel agency found that working from home led to a 13% performance increase.
However, there is also evidence that remote work leads to less collaboration. A 2021 study that looked at data from more than 60,000 Microsoft employees concluded that firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. The results, published in Nature Human Behavior, suggest that working remotely makes it harder for employees to acquire and share new information, which is essential to boost creativity and innovation. Other research published in Nature last year indicates that virtual communication curbs creative idea generation.
Employers and employees have learned a lot about remote working during the pandemic. While social scientists keep analyzing what happens when in-person exchanges are replaced by online communication, many companies increasingly opt for the hybrid model: a blend of home and office-based work. But questions remain about how to achieve the right balance.
Essentially, it will depend on the nature of the industry, tasks performed, and job responsibilities. Business leaders will need to account for different variables, such as:
One last aspect is worthy of attention: what to do when creating balance is impossible? After all, many workers have essentially non-flexible jobs, meaning they just don’t have the option to work remotely. Take, for example, the manufacturing industry and retail or food services delivered in a customer-facing environment. Besides those employees in the finance or IT departments, remote work is unfeasible or, at least, harmful to productivity.
What if the jobs that are not remote-friendly could also be supportive of flexibility? Being flexible doesn’t always have to mean working from home. Even when people have to work on-site because it is a business requirement, it is still possible to consider flexibility in valuable ways, such as offering increased autonomy and more alternatives in the workflow, more flexibility in scheduling, and mobility options over career growth. Alongside workplace flexibility, there is a related issue: employees have to keep in mind that employers also expect staff to be flexible when needed, as for example during projects that require in-person collaboration.
As anyone who takes a thoughtful look into the remote/in-person/hybrid question might conclude, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the future of where we work. The last few years have completely transformed the way we think about the meaning of working. From now on, the most crucial thing is understanding how convenient each model may be to both companies and workers.