Over the last few months, about one-third of the U.S. workforce has been in a grand HR experiment to see if what employees have long been saying is true: More autonomy and flexibility in how, when and where work gets done makes people more productive, engaged and connected—even if only virtually.
Facebook became the most recent proponent for extending remote work past the pandemic. Starting in 2021, some experienced employees could apply for permanent remote status, with an estimated up to 50% of the workforce working outside a company office in the next five to 10 years.
And the tech giant is far from alone. Twitter recently informed employees that most can work remote on a permanent basis, Microsoft is allowing remote work until at least the fall and Google until 2021.
In March and again in April, business/tech consultancy firm West Monroe surveyed C-suite executives from companies with $1 billion-plus revenues, and 44% reported that the biggest change coming out of the pandemic would be their approach to remote work—beating out crisis-management procedures, supply chain risk/exposure and debt position.
Scott Cawood, CEO and president of World at Work, says interest in remote work has been rising in recent years but there’s been a definite spike since the pandemic began.
“The difference now is that employers who may have been more reluctant before have looked at it and are seeing that it can work or at least work better than they thought it would,” says Cawood. “Now, they’re filling in the blanks.”
World at Work is watching closely during the recovery to see whether companies are offering more remote work options, and Cawood notes that FlexJobs, an online remote work platform, has seen a 7% growth in the number of its remote job listings.
“I think employers are recognizing that this is a trend they want to jump on if they can because it’s becoming the expectation [for some candidates],” Cawood adds.
As for bumps in the path toward more remote work, companies will have to tackle a variety of HR issues in the home environment, such as workers’ comp injury policies, paid time off/FMLA, pay equity, flexibility to accommodate home schooling/care for relatives, building a company culture remotely and more, Cawood believes.
Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, the employee experience technology company, says Facebook’s announcement that certain experienced employees could “apply” for remote work indicates the arrangement is considered a privilege that needs to be earned. “I’m not seeing that with a lot of other companies,” he says. “They just think, ‘This is the best way for us to get work done.’ And, it could actually help with diversity and inclusion, since the internet is blind in some ways.”
Albrecht says his own company is exploring what an effective remote work policy would look like. He expects that one-quarter of employees will want to work from home because they feel more productive there and another one-fourth will want to work with other people in the office because that’s how they get their energy.
“We’re researching this with our own employees right now,” he says. “I think half of the people will say, ‘I want to get the best of both worlds.’ There’s a lot of research that shows trust and autonomy leads to improved employee engagement and a whole bunch of other great business outcomes.”
Cawood adds that COVID-19 may have presented employers the opportunity to rethink how they develop meaningful relationships digitally.
“Everyone doesn’t have to be face to face,” he says. “You can still do very meaningful exchanges and you can learn and engage in debate and have conflicts even though it’s not in the same room.
“Some generations are more apt to do that because they were brought up on technology and other generations could really learn from this opportunity,” he notes. “That’s worth something in today’s environment.”