Working remotely: The pros and cons

In the Owl Labs 2020 State of Remote Work survey, almost 70% of full-time workers in the US were working from home during COVID-19 and 80% of full-time workers expected to work from home at least three times per week after COVID-19. Within a couple of years, 30% of workers will work from home a few days per week, according to Kate Lister from Global Workforce Analytics.

What are the pros and cons of remote working? We looked at survey reports, academic journals, and feedback from workers and managers to assess the benefits and drawbacks of remote work. Specifically, we assessed what the evidence says about working remotely pros and cons when it comes to:

  • Happiness
  • Productivity
  • Cost savings
  • Access to talent
  • Diversity
  • Loneliness
  • Workloads

The pros of working remotely

Tons of research shows that giving employees the ability to work remotely increases happiness and productivity. Firms benefit from greater access to talent and an easier time hitting their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. Both benefit from cost savings by working remotely.

Increased happiness

In the 2020 Owl Labs survey, 77% of respondents said the option to work from home after COVID-19 would make them happier. Nearly a quarter of full-time employees said they’d be willing to take a 10% pay cut to work from home at least some of the time.

This aligns with other research showing that just 40% of Americans currently working from home are excited to go back to working in their office full-time. Nearly 60% would prefer to work remotely “as much as possible” going forward.

Even before the pandemic, the 2019 Owl Labs State of Remote Work Report showed 55% of remote workers would likely look for another job if their remote job were no longer remote and 61% would expect a pay increase if they couldn’t work remotely. Those who worked remotely at least some of the time said they're happy in their jobs 29% more than workers who didn’t work remotely at all. They were also 13% more likely to stay in their job for the next five years.

Research shows workers tend to be happiest when they have the freedom to live where they want and choose how to organize their time.

Researchers examined 239 papers on the impact remote work has on outcomes including mental well-being, morale, innovation, revenue, camaraderie, teamwork, trust, and culture for employees and companies alike. They found that remote work can show that a company is committed to their workers’ well-being, increase staff morale, and make it easier for employees to hit an agreeable work/life balance.

Avoiding a long commute is a huge factor. Before the pandemic, Americans spent 30 billion hours commuting every year. Research shows longer commutes are associated with obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, back and neck pain, divorce, depression, death, political disengagement, poverty, absenteeism, lower productivity, and even pregnancy complications. Long commutes also exacerbate pollution and climate change.

Increased productivity

Not only are workers happier when they have autonomy over their location and working hours, but they’re also more productive when working remotely as well. In the 2020 Owl Labs survey, 75% said their productivity was the same or higher while working from home.

In one survey, 54% of workers said their productivity improved since working from home full-time and 64% said their work quality improved. One study found teleworking was associated with higher job performance ratings from supervisors.

Another paper found patent examiners who worked from anywhere got 4.4% more work done (with no decrease in quality) compared with those who worked from home within commuting distance from the office. The researchers estimated potential productivity gains from having more distributed teams could add $1.3 billion per year of value to the US economy, based on the average value of a patent.

Lower business costs

Companies have been pushing more workers into less office space for years. Working like sardines comes with distractions. And vaccines aren’t 100% effective. COVID-proofing offices -- with thermometers, hand-sanitizer stations, phone sanitizer stations, new HVAC systems, touchless systems, and more -- are going to increase costs significantly.

Letting go of offices will save companies tons of money. And working from home saves workers money too. An average of ~$500 per month according to Owl Labs 2020.

Greater access to distributed talent

Another benefit of remote work to firms is that they have access to far more talent, and may be able to offer lower salaries. Facebook, for example, is paying employees based on their geography’s cost of living. Distributed work can also increase access to work in rural areas. A paper found patent examiners who worked from anywhere showed workers who were allowed to live anywhere moved to lower cost areas, effectively getting raises that cost the company nothing.

Better diversity and inclusion efforts

Remote work may also make it easier for teams to meet their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. For example, not having to worry about office accessibility makes hiring people with disabilities simpler. Companies with greater gender diversity are 15% more likely to be high performers, according to one study. Companies with greater ethnic diversity are 35% more likely.

Another example: When remote work was less common, many women were penalized and stigmatized for making the choice to work remotely. Many associated remote work with mothers of young children. Employers view mothers as less committed to work than fathers or child-free workers. This penalty led many women to lean back, or out, after having kids. Perhaps with so many people now working flexibly, we can finally nix the "flexibility stigma."

The cons of working remotely

Despite all the benefits of working from home, there are still many disadvantages of working remotely to consider. Challenges include social isolation, overwork, and too many meetings.

Increased loneliness and erosion of social capital

One of the big drawbacks to remote work is the possibility of loneliness and eroding trust and social capital.

Can Duruk, Product Manager and co-writer of The Margins newsletter thinks many companies are jumping into a “remote-first” mentality too quickly. “Once people burn through the accrued social capital you will see productivity drop as relationships decay, new hires not gelling well, etc.” Trust and social capital are hard to establish and maintain over distance with a remote team. “We are operating under the assumption things won’t deteriorate and we are making these sweeping changes without much data,” Can said.

It’s more difficult to establish trust over video calls compared to in-person interactions, recent research suggests. This builds on existing research showing that people have a far easier time influencing behavior in-person compared to over email, Slack, or other collaboration apps. A more recent study showed that most people had a harder time telling whether someone was lying on video than via audio or text.

The researchers who examined the papers on the impact remote work cited several potential negative outcomes of remote work, including reduced trust.

Since trust and social capital are associated with higher performance, it’s important to take them into account. Communication failures cost companies an estimated $37 billion per year. It’s also easy to forget the spontaneous ideas and networking that in-person coworking facilitates.

According to some researchers, full-time remote workers may have a harder time problem solving and being creative than their in-office peers. Remote work may hinder teams’ ability to exchange ideas, make decisions collaboratively, ask and answer questions, and be creative.

Loneliness and social isolation is also pretty bad for workers’ mental health. In one study, 67% of workers reported higher stress after starting remote work for COVID. Anxiety and emotional exhaustion increased for 57% and 53% of workers, respectively. One survey found working from home for COVID was the most stressful time of their career while 88% reported moderate to extreme stress. Being forced to work from home is associated with diminished work life balance, depression, PTSD, domestic violence, and substance abuse.

More meetings and longer hours

After going remote, our research and other studies showed many workers’ meeting-load and working hours increased. Even pre-pandemic, remote workers attended more meetings than on-site workers. 3% of in-office workers attended more than 10 meetings per week, compared to 14% of remote workers. That remote workers spend more time in meetings isn’t ideal for productivity, as meetings eat into Focus Time.

Going forward

The research on the pros and cons of remote work is worth considering as companies and workers decide how to proceed. Evidence indicates that most workers are happier and able to stay productive and save money while working remotely.

On the other hand, social isolation, eroded work/life balance, and burnout are things to look out for. Make sure team members are able to get something akin to face-to-face time to build trust and camaraderie.

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