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Amy Brown headshot

As Companies Sing Praises of Remote Work, Employee Engagement Questions Arise

It’s time to discuss how the private and public sectors can work together to reduce inequalities so more workers can reap the benefits of remote work.
By Amy Brown
Remote Work

It took insurer Nationwide just two months of seeing the benefits of remote work for its 27,000 employees to decide to make an arrangement forced by a global pandemic permanent. Now it plans to shrink from 20 physical offices pre-crisis to just four. Twitter, meanwhile, has told its employees that they can work from home “forever,” if they want to. As more companies and employees discover the environmental and social benefits of remote work, physical offices may be a lot emptier but productivity and other benchmarks of a successful workplace won’t suffer, say remote work proponents.

For long-time remote workers like myself, it’s “welcome to the party,” and “what took you so long?” According to Gallup, the share of workers reporting that their employers were offering remote-work or flex-time options rose from 39 percent in mid-March to 57 percent in a poll conducted March 30 to April 2. The percentage of working Americans who say they’ve worked from home due to the novel coronavirus doubled from 31 percent to 62 percent over the same period.

So long, gridlock

It’s doubtful that anyone misses their morning commute and the gridlock of rush hour. The photos of empty streets in New York City and other large cities are eerie, yes, but the lack of traffic has meant clearer skies and cleaner air, according to satellite imagery showing drastically reduced emissions of nitrous oxide, a major component of smog. According to Census Bureau data, Americans on average spent 225 hours a year commuting in 2018, which studies have linked to high blood pressure and other negative health consequences.

Those former commuters are now much happier workers, according to a joint CNBC/Change Research survey that found that 47 percent of those surveyed who were working from home during the pandemic said the time they have been spending the time they save on their commute to sleep more, focus on various hobbies and get more work done. The latter point was a key factor for Nationwide’s CEO Kirt Walker, who told Fortune that his newly virtual workforce is as productive as ever: "We've tracked all of our key performance indicators, and there has been no change."

Tech firms lead the way

Twitter is not alone among the tech giants in keeping workers home for a while, as the Washington Post has reported. Google and Facebook have told employees that many workers can do their job remotely should plan to do so until 2021. Amazon has said its headquarters employees will stay home at least until October. Microsoft has told its staff that working from home remains optional through October for most employees.

And it’s not just the tech industry. About 74 percent of CFOs surveyed recently by Gartner expect some of their employees who were forced to work from home because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic to continue working remotely after the pandemic ends. Even NFL coaches and front-office executives whose grueling hours have meant sleeping in their offices are raving about the perks of working remotely this spring as they prepared for the draft and upcoming season. And for people with disabilities, who have long fought for their ability to perform certain jobs remotely, the awakening by the business world to the possibilities of remote work is welcome news.

Some analysts think that remote work will flourish long after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Use of remote work tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack are skyrocketing as they have made collaboration easy and effective. Employers like Nationwide have seen the opportunity in being able to reduce overhead costs for expensive office leases with more employees working from home.

Former Google CEO sees need for more office space

But there are some naysayers to the remote work boom who say, “Hold on a second.” Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt predicts that companies will need more office space after the pandemic, not less. In remarks on "Face the Nation" recently, Schmidt said he thought the desire for social distancing within offices would place a premium on office space. “We're going to have to think about hub-and-spoke systems where local people don't travel so far because they don't want to be in public transit for so long. So we're going to have to really rethink how businesses operate. They need their employees back."

Schmidt said he envisions employers having to devise flexible arrangements, with those who prefer to go to the office, others staying at home, and another group choosing a local or near-their-town working environment. Nationwide’s Walker acknowledged, in fact, that the company will end up with a hybrid model since about 25 percent of its workforce says they want to come back.

But a trend has been set in motion, with Mondelez announcing earlier this month it doesn’t need all its global offices and Barclays CEO Jes Staley saying crowded corporate offices with thousands of employees  “may be a thing of the past.”

Remote work not an equal-opportunity employer

But it’s important to note that remote work isn’t an option for everyone. Two-thirds of U.S. jobs cannot plausibly be performed at home, according to a recent study by the University of Chicago. While a majority of jobs in finance, corporate management, and professional and scientific services can be done at home, very few jobs in agriculture, hotels, retail or restaurants can be done remotely. These industries employ many of the workers deemed “essential” during the global health crisis.

With the serious health threats of a pandemic hanging in the balance, that makes some workers very fortunate—and others not so lucky. They may be forced back to work under uncertain circumstances out of fear of losing their jobs. Many states have characterized a refusal to return to work over concerns about the virus as "voluntary quits" that will halt their unemployment benefits. For many, a face-to-face economy is going to continue to be their reality. In fact, remote work has been found to worsen inequality by mostly helping high-income earners.

If companies are to avoid this kind of two-tiered economy, with remote work available to some but not others, it’s worth having a conversation about how the private and public sectors can work together to reduce inequalities so that more workers in the age of COVID-19 can reap the benefits of remote work.

Image credit: Unsplash

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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