In March, millions of Americans began working entirely from home for the first time, a massive experiment in remote work that happened overnight. Since then, as states and workplaces have planned a staged return to a revised “normal” life, the future of the office has come into doubt. Some people say we’ll miss it. Some people say we won’t.
What do workers really want? And how can the workplace adapt to fit their needs? It’s useful to look at the data.
Experience surveyed more than 1,000 new and habitual remote workers at the start of the crisis to get a picture of how COVID-19 has changed work habits and workplace desires. Their responses suggest that some newly-remote workers missed the office. Still, the vast majority indicated that when the current crisis ends, they will want to keep working remotely at least part of the time. And they articulated some of the pain points that made remote work difficult, as well as the elements that make the home office attractive.
Altogether, the survey results suggest that the office will persist. But we’ll need the tools and capabilities — technological, logistical, and managerial — to make this new normal work.
To figure out how, we’ll need to look to the future, but also to the past.
How it used to be
Remote work isn’t a new idea. In recent decades, a handful of major American companies have tried out sweeping flexible and remote work policies, then largely abandoned them. Best Buy and Yahoo both ended their flexible work programs for employees in 2013, citing a need for staff to be together to collaborate and drive innovation. IBM ended its decades-old remote work policy in 2017. By the start of the COVID-19 crisis, only about seven percent of U.S. workers were entirely remote.
There are many reasons why, despite advances in technology, companies backed off those work-from-home experiments — even though they faced a substantial public backlash for doing so. Corporate leaders value the potential for face-to-face interaction and camaraderie, says Zeynep Aksehirli, a professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern University’s D’Amore McKim School of Business. Many modern workspaces are designed to maximize the social aspect of work, with open concepts, shared desks, and communal tables designed for workers to bump into one another so creativity can spark. And while some have predicted that the need for social distancing will send the open office to the dustbin, Aksehirli thinks the concept isn’t going anywhere soon — it will just be paired with limited movement, vast space between colleagues, and even Zoom calls with coworkers in the same building. “Open offices are here to stay, we’re just going to have less density,” she says.
The respondents to our online survey, which was conducted near the start of the shutdown in late March, addressed that frustration at missing out on some of the benefits of office life. Of the 4,440 employed Americans who answered our initial question on employment status, 40 percent were newly working from home because of the Covid crisis. (Nearly half were continuing to work outside the home; the rest already had at least a partial work-from home arrangement.)
Those newly remote workers had set up shop at home under unusually stressful circumstances — sometimes juggling work obligations with children at home, at a moment of profound economic and health uncertainty. And they weren’t able to take advantage of some of the perks that were available to established remote workers, such as occasional in-person meetings or even the ability to leave the home to work at a coffeeshop or shared workspace. That lack of an escape hatch may have contributed to some of the difficulties newly remote workers cited, including separating work from personal time and staying focused.
In all, fewer than 15% of new remote workers said they’d prefer to keep working at home full-time when the shutdown ends. Aksehirli argues that this may be because a workplace offers more than just a desk. For employees, a physical office offers valuable cultural and social cues about a company and their place within it. The way colleagues address each other, the power structure indicated by an office layout, dress codes, even the values communicated through décor — all are vital pieces of information that help employees feel like they belong, Akshirli says, and they’re hard to communicate through a screen. She adds that at a time when many workplaces are using the same digital collaboration tools — Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams — the work experience might feel especially flat.
But for both workers and managers, that isn’t the biggest obstacle.
The productivity problem
Obviously, not all jobs lend themselves equally well to remote work — many positions in health care, child care, retail, factory production, and public safety are bound to specific locations. Some of that is reflected in our survey results.
But in all of the fields we surveyed, many new remote workers who could do their jobs from home still found themselves struggling with productivity, compared with people who had been working remotely for a long time.
Around remote productivity, “there’s anxiety on both sides of the equation” Aksehirli says. Managers, especially those who have to answer to higher-ups, are slow to let go of something tangible they can point to, such as office face time, that indicates their teams are getting things done. (Indeed, some managers have turned to extreme surveillance measures to ensure workers’ productivity at home during the pandemic.)
Many workers feel the same attachment to those outward markers of productivity, she says, and worry that, as they work remotely, they’ll be dinged for connectivity problems, or for being slow to learn new virtual tools.
When you look more closely at what remote workers said they liked and disliked about home-based work, however, it looks like this productivity gap could be short-lived. Especially at the start of the shutdown, many remote workers were struggling with logistical challenges: an uncomfortable work station, a lack of tools or connectivity, problems collaborating with distant colleagues. Habitual remote workers were much less likely to name these issues as big problems, suggesting that these challenges can be addressed over time. Since Best Buy and Yahoo ended their virtual work policies, Aksehirli points out, the tools for collaborating remotely have become exponentially more sophisticated. “You can share screens, talk to 10 people at once, have [shared Google docs], she says. “That used to require enterprise software, and it was hard to use.”
In addition, some of these problems could resolve themselves over time, and through new attitudes about how to measure productivity. People who are habitual remote workers, after all, are often not as beholden to the traditional work day, or find that their workweeks expand and contract in response to specific demands. Aksehirli recommends that rather than using face time as a productivity metric, managers should shift the focus to task completion, and decouple that from the time employees are actually spending online.
Working for everyone
Beyond the pandemic, a middle-of-the-road approach to remote work has some advantages that could persist. Our new-to-remote-work respondents reported mainly being pleased about reducing commuting costs — whereas longstanding remote workers tended to be more appreciative of increased scheduling flexibility.
But increasing the percentage of people able to work remotely could have advantages beyond individual preferences.
Even a partial shift to remote work, for instance, will have a direct impact on our collective carbon footprint by reducing the number of car and transit commuters. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently reported, the average U.S. commuter spends 54 hours per year in traffic jams, wasting the equivalent of $1,000 per person per year in lost work time and higher gasoline bills. The decentralized workplace could also be a more inclusive one, advocates say: The normalization of remote work will make a much wider range of jobs available to people who have faced challenges around workplace integration in the past. And a growing facility with digital tools could help more workers take advantage of lifelong learning programs that are delivered online, adding to their skills and furthering their careers.
It’s even possible that the workplace changes forced by the Covid crisis will make for a better office experience overall. In Aksehirli’s view, a hybrid workplace could prompt team leaders to be more purposeful about calling meetings and determining when face-to-face interaction is truly needed. Improvements made for the purposes of safety, such as pumping in fresh air (instead of recycled) and cleaning spaces more carefully and frequently, could make offices healthier places in the long term.
And the lessons learned in the pandemic could encourage organizations to design online experiences that mimic the best of what the office offers from a social standpoint. Slack channels and Teams groups for non-work interests, such as TV shows and pets, can increase camaraderie and provide an outlet for impromptu conversations that might otherwise happen at the office fridge. Digital collaboration spaces designed with company colors and logos can signal that remote workers are still part of a team — and strengthen the bonds that fuel collaboration. As our forced experiment in working from home has shown, we want to work together, wherever we are — and maybe now, we can do it better.
About the survey
The data in this report comes from a wave of three surveys deployed via Google Surveys between March 21 and March 30, 2020. The survey respondents were American visitors to websites in the Google Surveys publisher network. 9,330 initial respondents were asked about their current work situation; of these, 620 new remote workers and 384 habitual remote workers were surveyed in greater detail about their experiences with remote work.
Survey design and data analysis by Alexandra Samuel.