Work from home! Make money in your pajamas!
Over a year into the pandemic, much of America’s white-collar workforce that has been doing this long enough for it to feel normal may or may not still be dazzled by the allure. Regardless, even when it’s safe to go back to an office, many predict that working from home and more flexible options will remain the norm.
Global Workplace Analytics, a research-based consulting firm, estimates that at least 25%-30% of the U.S. workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021. Large companies like Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft have already announced more flexible permanent policies.
On top of meeting employee demand, it makes sense for employers on a number of fronts. Global Workplace Analytics estimated that employers could save an average of $11,000 per half-time remote worker per year, thanks to factors such as increased productivity, reduced real estate and absenteeism costs. Work-from-home policies are also a strong statement of sustainability, with real power to get cars off the roads.
“Remote work, as a working model, developed by about 10 years in the span of just two weeks,” she said. “What we are experiencing right now is not remote work. What we are experiencing now is an international contingency plan for a global pandemic.”
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In order to truly get remote work right and do it in a sustainable way, Farrer says that not only companies but state and federal governments, need to be more intentional about how remote work is designed.
Pro: Diversity and Inclusion
Measuring performance in a remote work environment is often done using results-based tracking models, Farrer said, and that means employees are evaluated more anonymously. “There’s less opportunity for discrimination and bias,” Farrer said. “Because of that, diversity and inclusion is much stronger in virtual organizations. It’s exciting to think about how that could affect us socially.”
The potential here doesn’t just apply to common biases toward race, gender and age. Remote work environments can also be more inclusive for people with physical disabilities and invisible barriers such as those with autism, dyslexia or attention deficit disorder. While physical offices can pose a number of challenges for these workers, the freedom to work from home and increased employer-sponsored accommodations for the right home office setups can be a big win.
Con: Employment Systems Aren’t Ready
An effective remote work infrastructure that includes appropriate laws and policies that protect both workers and employers have a long way to go, Farrer said. Information and confidentiality may be harder to securely protect outside the office, for example. Tax regulations become more complicated to navigate across state or international boundaries. Protections covering occupational health and safety for workers in mobile offices are vague and risk litigation.
“There are a lot of laws that should exist that don’t yet exist,” Farrer said. “There’s going to need to be a lot of ethics and honesty that carries through this time until we have legislation to protect the employer and the employee.”
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Pro: Environmental Sustainability
Virtual organizations produce less waste, use less energy, and their employees are not in their cars emitting carbon while they commute.
In its Work-At-Home After Covid-19 forecast report, Global Workplace Analytics estimated that the annual environmental impact of half-time remote work (based on the estimate that 56% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is at least partially compatible with remote work) would be the equivalent of taking the entire New York state workforce off the road, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
“There is no easier, quicker and cheaper way to reduce your carbon footprint than by reducing commuter travel,” the report said.
“Isolation has always been a risk for remote workers,” Farrer said. “However, it’s important to remember that never have remote workers been locked in their homes with nowhere else to go. Social interactions and social support structures have been broken for the last year.”
While this extreme isolation will eventually subside post-pandemic and remote workers will have more freedom to get out to a coffee shop when they need to see other humans, the challenge of effectively connecting with co-workers will still be real.
According to a 2019 Gallup report on isolation and remote work, employees can feel isolated because they can’t access the materials or information they need, they think their achievements aren’t recognized and they feel generally cut off from the business.
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Pro: Economic Development
As location is becoming less important, workers don’t need to flock to urban centers and tech hubs to get or keep a job. Many are now considering staying put in their hometowns or relocating to more affordable cities or rural settings. Farrer sees this as a promising opportunity.
“This is doing great things for reducing the rural divide and stopping brain drain, especially in middle America,” she said.
Since this phenomenon is happening so rapidly, though, Farrer cautions that it’s important for local development to be intentional about such shifts to guide regional growth in a positive way.
You’re not imagining it — working from home for many really has meant longer hours. The National Bureau of Economic Research reported in July that the average workday has increased by 48 minutes, while the number of meetings has increased 13%.
“There’s a lot of stress and pressure of this ‘always on’ mentality,” Farrer said. “You always have access to your office, so there’s a tendency to overwork.”
She said that’s another argument for proper laws and regulations that help protect work-life balance. Other countries such as France already have the “right to disconnect” laws protecting employees from after-hours work expectations, and New York state has considered similar legislation. As we move ahead into the new normal, defining these types of boundaries will likely become more important than ever.
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