According to Gallup, 43 percent of U.S. employees work remotely all or some of the time. And remote work is popular with employees. A study by Owl Labs revealed “34% of U.S. workers would take a pay cut of up to 5% in order to work remotely.” A recent CNBC story captured the generational divide reflected in this trend: “Younger generation managers are more likely to embrace remote working, both for their employees and their staff. Three-quarters of millennial and Gen Z managers have team members who work a significant portion of their time remotely, versus 58 percent of baby boomers.”
Although it looks as if high percentages of staffers work remotely, as recently as 2018 44% of global companies didn’t allow any remote work at all. That’s despite the fact that remote workers are happier than their cubicle-bound counterparts. The same study revealed that “remote workers say they’re happy in their jobs 29% more than on-site workers.”
Today, companies are at least aware that it’s an issue they must discuss. In a survey conducted by Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group (cited in a New York Times article with the great title “Young People Are Going To Save Us All From Office Life”), the vast majority of respondents said that the new developments most urgently affecting their businesses included employees’ expectations for flexible, autonomous work. However, only 30 percent of those businesses said they were prepared for it. Despite the demand—especially from younger professionals—and despite the wide availability of technology that allows for team collaboration and activity, working from home has continued to be resisted by a variety of corporate sectors.
All that is likely to change because of the brewing coronavirus crisis—COVID19.
As the number of people infected with the virus approaches a hundred thousand and the death toll rises, companies that have been reluctant to allow their workforce to skip the office are now having to weigh the risks in a way they never imagined; productivity would take a huge dip if just one infected employee came to work.
Already, some companies are getting out in front of the impending pandemic by promoting remote work. The Washington Post reports that “IBM, which nearly three years ago ended remote work for some U.S. employees, said it had asked workers in coronavirus-affected areas to work from home ‘wherever possible.’” Japan’s largest ad agency, Dentsu, told all its workers in its Tokyo headquarters to work from home. Other organizations will surely follow suit.
I predict that when the coronavirus is finally on the wane (a day that can’t get here soon enough), the return to the cubicle will be slowed, and at some companies, it won’t happen at all. That’s because once you give this perk to your people, it may be hard to woo them back to the office. This in turn could actually lead to a more successful workforce. Nigel Davies in this timely Forbes piece warns that you’ll lose your best staff if you aren’t promoting remote work. The Remote Work Report, commissioned by Zapier and conducted online by The Harris Poll, concluded that across the board, “95% of these workers want to work remotely, yet 31% are currently employed by companies that don’t allow it. Of these, 74% are willing to hand in their notice to work for a company that lets them work remotely.”
While this seismic shift offers a profusion of benefits for the corporate world, the commercial real estate sector may be hit hard. The U.S. is experiencing a huge boom in office real estate construction right now. Just in New York City, millions of square feet of office space has recently come online or is projected to do so in the next couple of years. In fact, office space construction has reached a 30-year high.
If the coronavirus does lead to a mass exodus of on-site employees, finding something to do with empty office towers will be the next global challenge to solve. I have no doubt those glass walls will be put to better use than serving as hives for worker bees. Anyone who still believes that productivity and company loyalty are hurt when workers go remote needs a reality check; those fears are not backed up by data.
Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit at Harvard Business School, compared the outcomes of flexible work arrangements at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The research team found that employees with liberal “work from anywhere” arrangements were 4.4 percent more productive than those following a more traditional “work-from-home” policy that gives schedule flexibility but requires workers to live near the office. A FlexJobs study found that 76% of respondents said they’d be more loyal to their employers if they had flexible work options. In fact, according to Owl Labs, companies that allow remote work experience 25% less employee turnover than companies that do not allow remote work.
It’s sad that it takes a global health catastrophe to make stodgy companies embrace something that has already been proven to enhance their operations. But the silver lining of remote work extends beyond a company’s bottom line: less time commuting means more time with the people who matter most in our lives.
William Arruda is the cofounder of CareerBlast and author of Digital YOU: Real Personal Branding in the Virtual Age.