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What the research says about the benefits of remote work

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on September 29, 2020

Before COVID-19, researchers estimated that about a third of US jobs could be done fully remotely. Currently, 42% of US workers currently work from home full-time. As workers and companies decide whether and when to return to the office, it’s never been more valuable to understand the long-term ramifications of fully remote work.

To help companies decide how to move forward, I dove into the existing academic research on the impact of fully remote work on employees, companies, and society as a whole. While COVID-19 certainly changed remote work, and the data might not be as clear as we’d like, we do know a few things that can help us plan for a post-COVID world. Here’s what the research says about the positive effects of remote and distributed work.

Potential positive impacts of remote and distributed work

More and more companies are allowing their employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future. And since they’re fully remote anyway, many employees are also working “distributed” across the globe.

According to the research, workers prefer fully remote work. Just 40% of remote workers in a recent Gallup poll said they were excited to go back to working in their office full-time. Most said they’d prefer to work remotely “as much as possible” even after restrictions are lifted.

Even before the pandemic made office work frightening, 55% of remote workers said they’d likely look for another job if they were no longer allowed to work remotely and 61% would expect a pay increase if they couldn’t work remotely in the 2019 Owl Labs State of Remote Work Report.

The reasons are many, and include not having to commute, an improved work/life balance, better diversity and inclusion outcomes, and higher productivity.

The 2019 Owl Labs State of Remote Work Report asked remote workers why they preferred remote work:

Four main reasons workers prefer remote work

Remote workers chose work/life balance, productivity, stress, and commutes when asked about the biggest reasons they decided to work remotely. Owl Labs

Remote and distributed workers commute less (or not at all)

Before the pandemic, Americans spent 30 billion hours commuting every year. In the 2019 Owl Labs State of Remote Work Report, 78% of remote workers said avoiding a commute was among the biggest reasons they decided to work remotely. Research connects longer commutes with obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, back and neck pain, divorce, depression, death, political disengagement, poverty, absenteeism, lower productivity, and even pregnancy complications.

Society-wide, less commuting reduces carbon emissions and other forms of driving pollution. It reduces our dependence on fuel imports and reduces transportation infrastructure costs.

The impact of remote work on work/life balance and mental well-being

According to Owl Labs, workers who work remotely at least some of the time said they're happy in their jobs 29% more than workers who did not work remotely at all. They’re also 13% more likely to stay in their current job for the next five years. Fully 91% of remote workers listed improved work/life balance, and 78% listed reduced stress, among their biggest reasons for deciding to work remotely.

Researchers Sebastian Boell, Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic, and John Campbell 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.

The impact of remote work on workplace diversity and inclusion efforts

Back when remote work was less common, many women who worked remotely were penalized and stigmatized for making that choice. That’s because many associated remote work with mothers of young children. And research shows 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.

COVID-19 having broken the link between motherhood and remote work may help keep more women in the workforce. Perhaps with so many people working flexibly, we can finally nix the "flexibility stigma."

In addition, distributed work can increase access to work in rural areas. This is especially true if we can wire up all American homes. Firms that hire remotely can access far more talent and may be able to offer lower salaries. Currently Facebook is paying employees based on their geography’s cost of living. It may also make it easier for teams to meet their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion goals. For example, it’s easier to employ people with disabilities when you don’t have to worry about office accessibility. 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.

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.

The impact of remote work on company and employee productivity

Research also finds that remote work is associated with higher levels of employee productivity. For example, 79% of remote workers in the Owl Labs report listed increased productivity/better focus among the biggest reasons they decided to work remotely.

A paper on call center workers, those who worked remotely four days a week for nine months increased performance 13% compared to their in-office peers and had half the attrition rate.

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

Impact of wfh on patent examiner productivity

Impact of wfh on patent examiner productivity Harvard Business School

Another study found an association between teleworking and higher job performance ratings from supervisors.

Going back to research from Boell, Cecez-Kecmanovic, and Campbell, remote work can:

  • Encourage managers to evaluate employees based on goals and outcomes rather than observational measures like butt-in-chair time
  • Increase company agility by allowing workers access to work-related information regardless of time and space
  • Save companies money on real estate and equipment
  • Enable workers to spend their commute time working
  • Help employees work when they’re naturally most productive
  • Help recruit and retain high-performers

Going forward

The research shows employees tend to prefer remote work for a variety of reasons, including avoiding a commute, improved work/life balance, better diversity and inclusion outcomes, and higher productivity. However, the picture isn’t all rosy. In future posts we’ll explore what the research says about the potential downsides of remote and distributed work.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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