The world will never be the same as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. There is only post-pandemic now. This includes the permanent changes to the American economy and workforce. When the pandemic first hit, uncertainty followed. Businesses from all industries adjusted to remote work if possible. With the country under lockdown orders, and intense social distancing regulations in place, the traditional in-office work lifestyle that Americans had grown so accustomed to was non-existent.
Today, more than 15 months after the initial national lockdown, businesses are at a crossroads. Do they remain in a remote setting, implement a hybrid model, or maybe return all employees back to their offices and cubicles? The answer might actually lie with employees. Since transitioning to a work-from-home style, many employees have been able to cultivate a healthier, happier work-life balance than previously held. In some ways, the pandemic has provided a silver lining to desk-sitting Americans. By working remotely, individuals have been able to eliminate frustrating commutes, get more sleep, better keep their house in order, spend more quality time with family, friends, and pets — all while maintaining their same level of productivity.
This past year, many remote employees have gotten comfortable and felt safe in their work-from-home environment. Even as more vaccines are administered, with roughly 41 percent of all Americans being fully vaccinated (as of June 2021), hesitancy still exists. Some employees are still wary of COVID-19 and the future evolution of the virus, while others are content with the flexibility remote work affords them. Either way, many employees have been forcing the hand of their employers to move to a remote work model. If the business decides to force employees out of their homes and back into conference rooms, well, many employees are just quitting. In a survey of American adults, 39 percent reported they would consider quitting their jobs if employers made them return to the office. That number jumped to 49 percent when just looking at Millennials and Gen Z respondents.
This all culminates in remote work being the newest retention tool in today’s workforce. Put plainly, employees are realizing they have more options in the workforce than previously thought. With more companies offering full-time remote roles, and people ditching the past work-life balance model for a more flexible, individual framework, businesses are seeing that remote work is a bargaining chip they may need to use to keep their talent from going elsewhere.
The Working Relationship Between Remote Work, Employees, & Businesses
Some of the major hesitation companies face with remote work is a drop in employee efficiency and a lack of oversight. While these are valid concerns, their basis is rooted in decade’s old thinking. When remote work first became a possibility, the internet and adjacent technologies were nowhere near their capabilities as today. At-home network connections weren’t as fast, homes lacked certain tools like fax machines, and conferencing into meetings for a presentation wasn’t really useful. Issues like these would slow down the day-to-day tasks of many employees, and disrupt any chance of effective team collaboration. Additionally, other than the employee’s word, how could companies really verify they were working?
Today, those two main roadblocks have been removed and remote work and in-office work can almost be interchanged without notice. Multiple studies have looked at the productivity and efficiency of remote work compared to in-office. The results across the board have shown productivity to not be deterred by remote work — and in some cases, it has increased the workload employees accomplish due to the ability to pick up work at any hour of the day.
As for transparency into an employee’s day-to-day, countless tracking, collaboration, and communication tools have been invented specifically for remote work and geographically separated teams. Companies can now have their employees’ work hours logged, their online status monitored, and their search history scanned. Applications like Slack, Google Drive, Microsoft Teams, and so on enable teams to carry on daily functions as if they were sitting right beside each other.
The question is no longer if remote work is viable for businesses, but instead if businesses are willing to make that option available? In a PWC survey, 83 percent of polled employers and 71 percent of polled employees said that remote work over the past year has been successful. Despite that, many businesses are still clinging to the idea of having employees return to the office at least part-time, citing that being in-office:
- Increases productivity
- Provides a space to meet with clients
- Enables effective employee collaboration
- Holds company culture together
Employees aren’t opposed to a hybrid model but they don’t see eye to eye on the number of in-office days that their employers desire. In that same PWC survey, over 50 percent of employees would like to work remotely at least three days a week. In the end, it goes back to employees holding the negotiating advantage here. Other job opportunities exist that offer a more flexible remote work model. The life habits, workflow, and freedom that has come with abandoning the office and hunkering down at home have fully sunk in — and employees seem to be ready to make this the status quo. Companies now must weigh what is important, retaining employees or having rows of cubicles filled?