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Why don’t we know whether remote work works?

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on September 22, 2020

Before COVID-19 forced their hands, many people wondered whether most companies could function fully remote. Researchers estimated that about a third of US jobs could be done fully remotely. As it turns out, 42% of US workers are currently working from home full-time. More and more companies are allowing their employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future. And workers aren’t upset about it. Just 40% of remote workers said they were excited to go back to working in their office full-time in a recent Gallup poll. Most said they’d prefer to work remotely “as much as possible” even after restrictions are lifted.

Which raises the question: What long-term impact will going remote have on workers and companies?

An extremely brief history of remote work

The US has had access to the tools necessary for remote work, including fax machines and telephones for more than a century. But the term “telecommuting” entered the lexicon in the 1970’s when the oil crisis incentivized workers to avoid driving to work. Today, telework or telecommuting is usually referred to as remote work or work from home (WFH for short).

In addition, some companies are “distributed,” because their employees live and work across the globe. It’s been growing in popularity since the 1980’s. In 2016, 24% of workers were remote at least some of the time and 43% of workers had ever worked remotely. Yet just 5.2% worked fully remote. Then COVID-19 happened.

Why remote work’s impacts are hard to measure

There’s plenty of research on remote work’s pros and cons. One study showed that the average company sees a 10% to 43% increase in productivity after going all-remote. A recent survey showed 54% of workers said their productivity had improved since working from home full-time and 64% said their work quality has improved. On the other hand, other research shows remote work can hinder implicit shared knowledge and may reduce trust between colleagues.

Researchers Sebastian Boell, Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic, and John Campbell looked at 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. Ultimately the results were inconclusive. Remote work is too complex and multifaceted for simplistic conclusions.

Boell, Cecez-Kecmanovic, and Campbell point out that the “intensity” of telework will obviously likely influence outcomes associated with telework. Think about how varied remote work can be. Before pandemic, remote work came in many flavors. Part-time or full-time. Everyone remote or just some. Same time zone or distributed. Some companies tracked employee hours and even implemented employee surveillance. Some had ad hoc telework policies while others had formalized and codified rules and expectations. Some companies implemented remote work top-down while others responded to employee demands.

Another challenge is that even within the same role, different tasks are more conducive to remote work than others. Workers often say they prefer to do tasks that require concentration and solitude, like creative thinking, planning, and writing, from home. But for collaborative work, like exchanging ideas and having frequent ad-hoc and informal interactions, people often say they prefer face-to-face.

Another limitation is that people are different! Some people highly value the ability to stop by their coworker’s desk to ask a quick question or relay some information. Other people highly value the ability to sit in a room alone, turn off notifications, and dive deep into their work without interruption (it me!). Boell, Cecez-Kecmanovic, and Campbell found that even on teams where you’d think personalities would be similar, people’s preferences differed. The fact that remote work may have different impacts on different teams due to the team’s personalities makes it hard to measure remote work’s overall impact.

Going forward

While the academic research isn’t as clear as we’d like, we do know that most companies can function fully remotely and most workers are pretty happy with remote work. In future posts, we’ll examine what else we do know about how remote work impacts society and companies.

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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