Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance

Predictions on the Long-Term Outlook for Remote Work

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned everyday life upside down in so many ways. From school and child care to socializing and work life, dramatic change has been forced on many individuals and businesses over the last several months.

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One of the biggest examples of this is the shift to remote work for millions of Americans in virtually any profession that can accommodate such a relationship.

We have been conditioned to see the COVID-19 pandemic as a necessary but temporary aberration that will be a distant memory in a few months. But with a second wave of infections forecasted by some experts and many companies actually seeing improvements in productivity as their employees work from home, it’s very possible that the current state of affairs could become a new normal, with companies either continuing remote work indefinitely or at least revisiting their existing policies around occasional remote work.

We polled some business leaders and managers to get input on where their organizations stand on their long-term outlook for remote work.

Challenging Assumptions

First, as noted above, many companies have been forced to reconsider long-standing beliefs about what mass work from home would look like for their organization now that they have been shown what it does look like in practice.

“Traditionally, workplace culture is strongly influenced by the in person environment,” says Carole Spink, partner in McDermott Will & Emery, LLP’s employment group. “However, during these past several months, employers have found that remote working arrangements have been fairly successful. Companies should challenge their prior assumptions on the viability of remote work, particularly given the important health and safety considerations that must be made post-COVID.”

We received a lot of feedback to our poll, and overwhelmingly, businesses favored extending work from home beyond its COVID-based necessity. Very few were eager to get back to an in-office arrangement as soon as possible. While some envisioned a long-term transition back to the old normal, many are expecting to maintain at least the option of long-term remote work.

What Surveys Say

In addition to anecdotal experiences and expectations, there is also survey research to support the likelihood that work-from-home options are here to stay. Pulse, an online research and networking platform home to 17,000 CIOs and tech executives, polled its community and found that:

  • Almost 70% of leaders believe that at least a quarter of their staff will shift to full-time remote work after COVID-19. 
  • Even with the lifting of restrictions, only 4%of leaders anticipate a full return to work right away. 
  • 84% of employers say they plan to enforce a 6-foot distance whenever possible, 64% of employers will take employee temperatures once back in the office, and 35%will employ a contact-tracing system.

While the shift to remote work was very abrupt for most organizations, the transition—if any—back to in-office work will likely be far more gradual.

Gradual Approach

Companies are taking a wait-and-see approach with respect to local, state, national, and international experiences and guidance from applicable regulatory agencies.

In other words, caution is key for many companies. “We are taking a conservative approach to our employees’ transition back to our offices,” says Eva Majercsik, Chief People Officer at cloud software company Genesys. “For Genesys, this will be a multi-month process with a long runway, and we are considering multiple modifications.”

One approach the company is contemplating is the use of “zoning.” Majercsik says this will involve determining which departments need to return to the office and which can continue to work from remote locations.

Additionally, a gradual approach allows more time to work out the kinks of a transition—an opportunity lost in the original mass shift to remote work.

Employee Perspectives Suggest Flexibility Is Key

One reason many companies have not finalized their plans regarding remote work is employees’ varying preferences. These different preferences should be expected when one considers the different situations employees find themselves in.

For example, some employees may be more concerned than others about the risks of working closely with other employees due to their own belief about a new and still not perfectly understood virus or underlying health concerns for themselves and their families. And some individuals generally prefer working remotely, while others find the lack of in-person interaction draining or find it difficult to focus.

“One of the most significant changes we’ve made is asking our staff what their preference is for return to work: would they like to continue to work from home, come back to the office full-time, or a hybrid of the two,” says Colton DeVos, marketing specialist at Resolute Technology Solutions. “The response has been a real mix of all three options which will make for an interesting workplace once things fully return to normal. We plan to look at the hoteling model of desk environment where people don’t have assigned desks but can choose any available workstation on the given day.”  

Companies Focusing on New Policies Around Long-Term Remote Work

Rather than spending hours and hours working the logistics of returning staff to the office, many companies are instead using that time and energy to put in place policies to support long-term remote work.

“Our long-term plan is to continue working remotely for as long as is humanly possible,” says Malte Scholz, CEO and Cofounder of Airfocus. “We’ve tried it out and realized that the pros outweigh the cons. When we started working remotely, we didn’t even know what the biggest benefit of remote work would be for us—and that’s being able to hire from anywhere in the world.”

Scholz says the company’s plan for the future is to establish guidelines and policies for remote work. The company has growth plans, and Scholz says that “we’re afraid that a company with 50+ employees will be difficult to manage remotely.”

The business is now studying larger remote companies like Toggl, Hotjar, Zapier, and others in an attempt to learn from them so it can be well prepared to grow its own remote company.

“We want to be prepared when we reach that point and that takes a documented strategy for hiring, onboarding and managing remote employees,” Scholz says. “In other words, we want to grow a fully remote company, but do it intentionally and not ‘wing it.’”

Many companies have long been wary of allowing staff to work from home, citing concerns about collaboration, supervision, and productivity. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on that outlook for many companies as they learn the pros and cons of remote work for their organization through this forced remote work experience.

What are your company’s plans for what the workforce will look like—and where they’ll sit—in the future?