Only 3.6% of US white-collar employees worked from home half-time or more in 2018 according to Global Workplace Analytics estimates.
New data is not yet available, but virtually everyone reading this article has anecdotal evidence, earned through hours of peering into a home-monitor-delivered Zoom meeting with a dozen or so colleagues all squinting back in real time, that the incidence of remote working will zoom well beyond that tiny portion of the workforce.
What will the remote working landscape look like in a year or two as the virus fades in the rear-view mirror?
Let’s start with a look back, all the way to June 2012, to an insightful article in the Monthly Labor Review (MLR). The authors offer advantages that still resonate today: reducing commuting time and energy consumption, contributing to improved work-life balance for caregivers and, as evidenced by empirical evaluation, delivering increased productivity, decreased absenteeism and increased employee retention.
With benefits like these, it would seem a slam dunk that as video technology has improved in the eight years since the article appeared, we would see a much higher incidence of remote working, but negative management attitudes about telecommuting have hindered expansion. A 2019 survey, conducted by the talent access organization MRINetwork, identified some firmly held beliefs about the possible dangers of widespread telecommuting. Pushback ranged from perceptions that productivity would suffer, team cohesion would be lost, communication effectiveness would decline and company culture would be diluted.
“The Covid pandemic pushed all of our clients into a forced test of the efficacy of telecommuting. Initial conversations indicate that many, if not most, of the senior-level hiring decision makers that we deal with every day are actively planning a return to a workplace with a higher ratio of work-from-home hours versus work-in-office hours,” says MRINetwork President and CEO Bert Miller. “I anticipate further study, though, regarding long-term remote productivity and broad sustainability as we go forward.”
There will be challenges to this brave new world. An article in the May 28 Wall Street Journal identifies some real pitfalls with more widespread use of contemporary video conferencing tools. The author, Betsy Morris, cites the inability of e-conferencing to allow participants to read body language and transmission delays interfering with normal speech patterns, compounded by the absence of important non-verbal and real-time feedback.
A safe bet, in peering into the American workplace in 2021, is that a much higher percentage of knowledge-based workers’ time will be spent working remotely. They will be delivering higher quality results, with no negative impact on company culture or team cohesion. But they and their managers will need to remain vigilant to ensure they hit the right mix of human interaction in an office environment along with the advantages of a work-from-home lifestyle.