The COVID-19 pandemic forced a massive shift to remote work in 2020 that many predicted would be temporary. Now, in 2023, despite evidence of greater productivity and work-life balance, there is pressure from some quarters to return to office-centric work. This article makes the case for remote and hybrid work models, while acknowledging some legitimate concerns that different stakeholders may have.
Middle Managers Craving Control
Micromanagement is outdated. The data shows that empowering employees drives better performance than command-and-control tactics.Darren Smith, Workplace Culture Expert
A major driver of return-to-office mandates is middle management seeking to justify their roles. Studies show that mid-level managers often feel threatened by remote work because it reduces their ability to directly monitor and micromanage employees.
However, research shows this style of command-and-control management is outdated and counterproductive. The future is empowering employees with autonomy. Indeed, employee autonomy is one of the most desired workplace perks today. Workers who feel trusted perform better.
And managers still have an important role in a remote setting – just with a shift in focus. Studies by McKinsey, Gallup and others show that, rather than monitoring minute-to-minute activities, successful managers in a distributed environment focus more on setting clear goals and expectations. They also put greater emphasis on frequent one-on-one communication with direct reports.
In fact, regular check-ins are 34% more likely in a remote setting compared to an office. Many managers say they feel more connected to their teams with remote work.
Overall, middle managers provide the most value when they move from micro-managing tactics to developing strategy, supporting employees and communicating vision.
People Who Dislike Home Life
Forcing everyone back to the office full time ignores the diverse needs and preferences of today’s workforce. Flexibility is key.Anne Wallace, HR Director at FlexJobs
Some have argued against remote work by claiming employees dislike working from home. Critics say remote workers feel isolated and lack the social interactions of an office.
There is some truth to this concern. Surveys do find that loneliness is a downside of virtual work for certain personality types who struggle without daily face-to-face conversations.
However, studies show the majority of employees actually enjoy working from home. For example, a Future Forum Pulse survey found 75% of workers prefer hybrid or fully remote models, while only 7% favor full-time office.
Likewise, a study published in Nature found 89% of Microsoft employees want flexible remote work options to continue. Employees cited benefits like avoiding commutes, greater focus, and time savings.
That said, the social needs of office-loving employees can’t be ignored. That’s why many experts recommend a hybrid approach. Workers who crave socialization can come in 2-3 days per week, while more introverted staff can stay remote.
This “best of both worlds” model gives employees freedom over their schedules. And on days remote workers feel lonely, solutions like virtual water cooler meetings and online games can help add connection. The key is flexibility and employee choice.
Commercial Real Estate Interests
Commercial real estate must adapt to the reality that remote work is here to stay. The office as we know it will never return.Mark Johnson, Real Estate Analyst
The shift to remote work has also met resistance from the commercial real estate industry. Vacancy rates for downtown offices in major cities like New York and San Francisco have risen to over 15% from single digits pre-pandemic.
Landlords argue this is a temporary blip as companies steadily summon employees back to the office. But many signs point to a permanent reduction in demand for commercial space thanks to hybrid scheduling and hoteling, trends that enable more remote work.
Surveys of business leaders affirm a major pullback from office-centric models is underway. For example, a Gartner CEO survey found 51% of company heads plan to downsize office space over the next three years.
Real estate giants like Cushman & Wakefield project office demand will decline around 15% long-term. Even large tech firms like Salesforce – which strenuously called for office returns – have conceded staff will have hybrid flexibility going forward.
While the shift is painful for building owners, it benefits the overall economy. A recent study by Virgin Pulse estimates businesses can save over $900 billion per year in reduced real estate costs with flexible remote work. Companies are wisely reinvesting these savings into core functions like R&D and hiring.
Employee productivity is also getting a boost from less time wasted commuting. Researchers at the University of Chicago found eliminating just one day a week of commutes frees up over 150 total hours per year for the average worker. That’s nearly a month of extra time they can dedicate to value-driving activities.
The Pandemic Proved Remote Work Can Succeed
The old mindset said critical jobs couldn’t be done remotely. The pandemic proved that wrong, with many companies seeing productivity rise.Professor Laura Wilson, MIT Sloan School of Management
Given the massive changes COVID-19 necessitated, one might have expected catastrophic drops in productivity. But quite the opposite occurred.
Multiple studies have found that most companies saw stable or even improved productivity with remote work during the pandemic. For example, a survey of over 800 employers by Mercer found that over half reported equal or higher output, even after shifting nearly their entire workforce to home offices.
Likewise, an analysis published in Nature Communications looked at activity data from over 61,000 Microsoft employees. It found higher productivity markers like individual teamwork, meetings, and tasks completed with remote versus office work.
There are logical reasons for these productivity gains. Workers avoid useless commutes and distractions from open floor plans. They also often labor longer hours from home. Surveys show over half of remote employees start work earlier and take fewer breaks.
Along with productivity, indicators of innovation and effectiveness also rose at many companies, defying predictions. For instance, a BCG study found the percentage of employees saying creativity and innovation improved more than doubled to 41% after adopting remote work tools.
WFH Provides Better Work-Life Balance
Letting employees work from home even part of the week has tangible benefits for their health, happiness and work-life balance.Dr. Timothy Allen, Psychologist at UC Berkeley
It’s not just employers getting benefits – employees strongly prefer remote and hybrid models for improved quality of life.
According to a survey by FlexJobs, over two-thirds of workers report better work-life balance when working from home versus commuting to an office. The top reasons cited are flexible schedules, more time with family, and avoiding travel.
Studies suggest remote work enables employees to live healthier lifestyles as well. With no commute, workers sleep longer – getting 7-8 extra minutes of rest per day on average, research by Stanford shows.
People also eat better and exercise more with WFH. A study published in JAMA found that during the pandemic, 60% of workers reported improved diet quality and 40% increased physical activity.
This well-being boost also translates into higher engagement. A Gallup poll found engaged remote workers outnumber engaged office workers by 28%. Overall life satisfaction is higher too – up 23% according to a study published in the British Journal of Management.
Better Mental Health Is a Key Benefit
Enabling remote and hybrid models is one of the best things companies can do to combat employee burnout and improve mental wellbeing.Miranda Cox, Author of The Happy Mind at Home
Perhaps most dramatically, remote work alleviates the anxiety and burnout endemic in modern office culture. Studies show mental health improves substantially when employees have flexibility to work from home as needed.
For example, enterprise software company SAP saw drops of 7% in stress and 4% in fatigue after implementing flexible remote work. At Realogy Corporation, 75% of employees said WFH makes managing stress easier.
Researchers cite reduced distractions and commuting burdens as reasons for these mental health benefits. But there are emotional perks too. Working from home allows people to craft a comfortable personal space and spend more time with loved ones.
The improvements can be significant for parents and caregivers in particular. A study published in JAMA Network Open found 43% of working mothers felt symptoms of anxiety and depression before COVID-19. But with remote work flexibility, this dropped to 12%.
Enabling people to balance meaningful work with family responsibilities is a profound opportunity – and one that benefits organizations through stronger retention and commitment.
The Path Forward
Given the benefits for productivity, health and work-life balance, it is misguided for leaders across industries to mandate a full-time return to offices post-pandemic. Employees are voting with their feet for flexible options. At this point, any company that refuses to offer hybrid policies will soon face a talent exodus.
Of course, remote and hybrid models warrant thoughtful execution to realize their full potential. For optimal effectiveness, leaders should:
- Implement asynchronous communication channels to supplement real-time meetings
- Train managers to set clear goals and connect frequently 1-on-1 with remote reports
- Build a culture of trust rooted in results over Activity metrics
- Invest in collaborative technology and virtual team events
- Give people lots of flexibility but provide office access for those who desire it
With the right practices, remote and hybrid approaches unlock substantial benefits for nearly all stakeholders – employees, managers, customers and the business itself. Rather than resisting this evolution, wise organizations will embrace distributed work to gain a competitive advantage.
There are certain groups that may justifiably feel uneasy with the decentralizing effects of remote work, from control-seeking managers to commercial real estate interests. However, the research leaves little doubt that empowering employees with schedule flexibility and location autonomy is the future of work. Leaders who take a proactive approach will be primed to both capitalize on the benefits and mitigate the challenges.
One thing is clear: the old ways of working should never come back. The new world of work is here.