What the Coronavirus Teaches Us About the Viability of Remote Work

As novel coronavirus sweeps the globe, the viability of a remote working world has been put to a sudden test. 

All around the world, the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) has compelled governments and employers to encourage — and in Italy and China’s cases, mandate — isolation measures. On March 16th, the White House advised a national moratorium on gatherings of more than ten people. Some state governments, including my home of New York, have gone even further by closing all “non-essential” businesses, banning all non-essential travel, and shuttering dine-in food and entertainment venues. 

The result? Hundreds of thousands of American workers have fled their corporate desks, attempting to go about business as usual from the isolated safety of their home offices. Notable tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Airbnb were among the first to establish remote work as the new office default, and countless smaller companies have since followed suit. According to the Atlantic, a near-third of America’s workforce is likely remote and homebound. 

So, this unintentional social experiment compels us to wonder — will COVID-19 be the factor that pushes us into a remote-working world? When the pandemic finally fades, and we emerge from our home offices, will our companies decide that it might be better to let us stay there — or remove the possibility of remote work altogether?

Most of all, we have to ask ourselves: What will this pandemic teach us about the future of flexible work? 

Remote Work: The Most Popular Controversy of Modern Business

The dialogue around remote work has mostly fallen into two categories — its appeal, and its risks. 

The former is apparent. According to a 2020 Flexjobs survey on remote working trends, 4.7 million U.S. workers, or 3.4 percent of the overall workforce, currently put in their hours remotely — a considerable increase from the 3.9 million reported just five years before. Researchers mapped a clear trend upwards, noting that remote work saw a 44 percent growth over the last five years, 91 percent in the last ten, and 159 percent in the last twelve. 

The reasons for this growth are myriad. For one, office solutions such as Skype, Slack, and Microsoft Teams have increasingly empowered workers to collaborate and complete work from anywhere with an Internet connection, thereby removing the need for a central office. Remote work also allows companies to hire professionals who might not be able to afford the cost of living in dense urban metros. Then, of course, is the work-life balance appeal; workers may feel that they need the greater flexibility that remote opportunities allow. 

“If you still consider remote work simply a desirable perk, you’re definitely in the minority,” a writer for the research firm IWG wrote. “Working outside of their company’s main location and having a choice of work environment is now a key factor for many job seekers when evaluating new career opportunities.” 

And yet, remote work isn’t without its critics. Some employers take a less-optimistic view of their out-of-office employees, worried that the quality of employee work would plummet if left unsupervised. It’s a fear that motivated Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer to ban workplace flexibility in 2013 and demand that workers either relocate to the office — or leave their roles. 

Meyer decided to revoke remote privileges after in-office employees claimed that they were “being hamstrung by absenteeism by coworkers. The last straw, though, was when Meyer checked the company’s private network logs and found that many remote employees were not logging in when they claimed to be working. 

Meyer’s actions at Yahoo! stand as a case study against the viability of full-time remote work, warning other companies away from buying into the apparent benefits of flexibility. But do Yahoo!’s experiences paint an incomplete picture? 

Remote Work Has Potential — and Not Just During a Contagion

Yahoo’s work-from-home experiment might have failed, but other companies have seen runaway success. Consider Ctrip, a Chinese travel company, as an example. In 2015, Ctrip partnered with researchers from Stanford University to investigate how allowing the organization’s Shanghai-based call center employees to work from home four days a week would impact business productivity. The study trialed the new, flexible policy on 500 sample employees — and found remarkable results

The researchers found that telecommuters experienced a productivity boost equivalent to a full day’s work. Employee attrition decreased by a whopping 50 percent; workers needed fewer sick days, less time off, and shorter breaks. Most notably, the study reported that Ctrip saved as much as $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing their office footprint. 

These findings demonstrate that flexible work arrangements offer incredible benefits for companies and employees alike. However, as both Yahoo and our experiences with COVID-19 have already begun to show, implementing a functional model for remote work won’t be a simple matter of telling employees to work from home one — or five — days a week. 

Lessons Learned from COVID-19-Mandated WFH

For many office workers, the coronavirus spread has prompted a crash course on what it means to work from home every day. People have begun adjusting to virtual work — but for some, the transition has been less than ideal. 

“You know, I am a person that needs to be in the office,” financial data analyst Cindy Ruiz commented for NPR. Ruiz shared that she misses her in-office tools, the connectivity, and the social environment. She says that she misses her colleagues and her daily office life.

Interestingly, Ruiz’s experience reflects the real problem with remote work: loneliness. Even the Ctrip-Stanford study above, for all its positive findings, reported that the majority of their subjects experienced social disconnection and isolation when working remotely.

“While technology and virtual work itself has advanced dramatically in recent years, our preparation to work virtually has not,” management researchers Barbara Z. Larson and Erin E. Makarius explained in an article for Harvard Business Review

In their investigations, Larson and Makarius have realized that successful remote working requires specific social skills and a degree of interpersonal support that most companies don’t even realize that they need to give. In their article, the pair note that only a third of companies train their employees in virtual working behaviors — and that even when they do, they typically focus more on software skills than social skills. 

This is a mistake; according to Gallup, employees who do not feel adequately recognized or supported are more than two times as likely to quit than their supported peers. For all their digital connectivity, remote workers need even more care and interpersonal interaction to feel connected to their working community. 

So, yes — COVID-19 may be the (forced) trial run that prompts companies to enter into a new era of flexible work. This period of isolation may open some leaders’ minds to the benefits of flexible arrangements or inspire workers to pursue more at-home options. However, our current experiences also demonstrate that companies can’t implement an effective remote policy by telling employees to stay in their home offices. Employers will need to launch social training programs and teach managers how to include remote workers in a business’s community. 

But no matter what happens when the coronavirus quarantine eventually lifts, one point is clear: all companies will have to rethink their approach to remote work.