The Coronavirus Pandemic’s Impact on Remote Work

The Coronavirus pandemic has ignited a monumental rise in the number of employees working remotely. The number of people working from home in the United States doubled in the first three weeks of social distancing requirements, and 63 percent of US employees reported working from home during the pandemic, according to Gallup.

Countless organizations struggled to rapidly shift to a remote work setting forced by the pandemic, but many ultimately found it to be an easier evolution than anticipated. While this pandemic will eventually become a memory, the increase in employees working remotely may remain. Over half of the employees who have shifted to remote work during the pandemic indicated a preference to keep working remotely as much as possible after restrictions are no longer in place and 55 percent of managers say that their employees will work from home more than they did before the pandemic (Gallup). The benefits organizations have begun to realize through increased remote work will likely inform policies and practices moving forward.

According to Jeff Wald, author of The End of Jobs, “Mass changes in labor statistics happen very rarely. This is one of those times. While corporate decision-making is thoughtful and complex, taking into account many issues, sometimes decisions get made for them”. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on many aspects of life and work, and one in particular, that has been a massive shift for most organizations and employees was the enormous increase in employees working from home. As we continue to see restrictions easing and workplaces returning to some sense of normalcy, we will likely find ourselves with a “new normal,” in which working from home will be much more common.

Historically, work from home arrangements were requested by employees and employers sometimes agreed or made some sort of compromise, realizing that it had a positive impact on employee morale and work-life balance. The pandemic necessitated a rapid and substantial move to a remote work model for many employees, and many employers have realized some benefits.

Jeff Wald notes that even before the pandemic, numerous studies noted the benefits of remote workers, including:

  • Higher productivity: A Stanford University study in 2018 found “astonishing” increases in productivity when people work from home.
  • Higher levels of engagement: The 2018 ADP Research Institute Global Study on Engagement shows virtual workers are nearly two times more engaged than traditional office employees.
  • Higher levels of employee retention: The same Stanford study showed a 50 percent decrease in attrition for employees who work from home.
  • Lower cost: Up to $10,000 in savings per employee from reduced office space and overhead for the company and $7,000 for the employee through savings on childcare, commuting, and work clothes.
  • Less stressed and healthier employees: An OWLLabs study showed a 24 percent increase in feeling happier when working from home.
  • Less environmental impact: Due to less commuting.

Interestingly, Gallup’s research on the specifics of remote work arrangements during the pandemic found that despite rising levels of stress and worry, there has actually been a notable increase in employee engagement, which may likely be tied to the increase in remote work. As of early May, the national engagement rate was 38 percent, up from 34 percent in 2018, and the highest it has been in 20 years. Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, engaged employees have reported lower levels of stress and worry and are more likely to report thriving overall lives than their less-engaged colleagues. And, employees who work remotely 60 percent to 80 percent of the time are most likely to be engaged.

As pandemic requirements and restrictions continue to ease and we move into the “new normal,” each organization will need to determine their own unique strategy to shift from the temporary measures put in place at the beginning of the pandemic to long-term strategies that will take into account what is best for the organization and for individual employees in the future.

As your organization creates and implements an on-going strategy around remote work, here are some considerations that may be helpful:

For the Organization:

  • Does your culture lend itself to a remote work environment? Are their expectations that need to be revised to keep employees connected and working collaboratively?
  • How will a remote work model impact your customers?
  • How and where will continued remote work impact your bottom line? Might you be able to function with less office space and parking spots moving forward?
  • How will employee performance be managed? How will expectations be set?  How will performance be monitored?  How will feedback be provided?  How will managers be trained to proactively manage performance and provide feedback to remote workers?
  • How will employee development be achieved? How will managers keep in close contact with remote employees about development goals and plans?

For Individual Employees:

  • Is their job/role suited for work from home long-term? Are responsibilities and procedures clearly defined? What level of interaction with colleagues is required, and can it be achieved in a remote setting?
  • What is their desire to return to work in the office? What factors impact their ability to return to in-person work, including personal responsibilities such as child care or elder care?  What is their level of comfort with the safety of working in the office?
  • What is their work from home environment? Do they have a space that will work well long-term to maximize efficiency and productivity?
  • How have they performed while working from home during the pandemic compared to previously?
  • Is their manager able to provide specific and regular feedback in this setting?

Regardless of the specifics of your remote work strategy, it is important to regularly assess whether the model is working and where improvements could be made. Ultimately, the strategy must be working for both the organization and each individual employee in terms of meeting business goals and personal needs.

Having a successful remote work model requires forethought, systems, and procedures. As companies rapidly shifted to provisional work from home arrangements in the wake of the pandemic, there were oversights. As the pandemic continued, employers found solutions and ways of operating that allowed them to thrive in this new environment. How the rapid shift to remote work models will ultimately impact organizations remains to be seen. We can be sure, however, that our “new normal” will be forever impacted by this unprecedented period. How will your organization implement lessons and learnings from this pandemic and emerge even more robust?