The pandemic has revolutionized the labor market by transforming what is possible through remote work. As a result, employers across the country are re-evaluating their remote work policies and the impact it has had on their overall productivity and workplace/organizational practices. While digital tools to connect individuals via the internet have helped mitigate some of the challenges faced by employers, one major challenge remains as business owners contemplate a return to traditional, in-person work: employee preference.
A New Reason to Stay Home
The impetus for working from home has shifted considerably since the pandemic began—COVID-19 is no longer the main reason people are continuing to work from home. As reflected in a Pew poll of close to 6,000 workers conducted earlier this year, more employees are now choosing remote over in-person work by choice instead of by necessity.
- In 2020, 64% of employees attributed their decision to work from home to the fact their office was closed. In other words, remote work was necessary due to uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 spread. By contrast, only 36% chose to work from home.
- In 2022, the opposite is now true: around 61% of respondents are now choosing not to go into the workplace. Just 38% claim they are working from home by necessity because their workplace is either closed or unavailable to them.
This shift is likely attributable to perceived preferences by employees for what remote work can bring: no daily commute, more productivity time, better work-life balance. The flexibility of remote work is seen by many as being more valuable than in-person, peer-to-peer connection, especially with virtual meeting platforms making remote connection so easy. Six-in-ten workers who could have worked remotely before the pandemic, but did not, say working from home has made it easier to balance work and their personal life. 78% of those now working remotely say they want to continue doing so after the pandemic officially ends, up from 64% in 2020. These results seem to indicate that remote work, at least from an employee’s perspective, is ideally a permanent fixture. Full-time remote workers are indicating an equal level of productivity (in some cases higher) compared to working in person. Some employees are even going as far as to suggest they would be willing to take a pay cut to continue working remotely!
A New Normal?
Across the labor market, employees are beginning to cling to the notion that work is something you do and not a place you go. The idea of returning to a “normal” work environment has quickly evaporated. The pandemic has shown that for a large segment of the workforce (around 40%), work can be completed from home. When coupled with flexibility for employees to take control of their own schedules, this makes for happier employees.
However, from an employer’s perspective, remote work comes with some caveats. 60% of remote workers in the Pew study noted feeling less connected to their colleagues. A similar percentage indicated they feel more productive at their workplace. Employers are simultaneously worried about lost opportunities for mentorship, collaboration, and innovation that remote work does not easily foster.
The CDC’s recent loosening of its guidance for COVID-19 protocols, particularly regarding isolation, has some employers eyeing a more pronounced return to in-person policies. But implementation is not so simple. Employers and employees must both confront the new reality with some adjusted expectations. One solution being advocated to address concerns on both sides, especially around how to attract and retain talent going forward, is a hybrid model of both in-person and remote components. Clarity and communication will be the key to ensuring that employees know what is expected of them regarding a flexible work schedule. Likewise, for employers, having a clear, well-defined hybrid remote work policy will entail understanding some of the potential hidden pitfalls, such as tax compliance and payroll implications, payroll withholding considerations, immigration, IP confidentiality, Title VII and ADA discrimination issues, workers’ compensation, and inconsistent state-to-state compensation and benefit consequences.
Remote work is likely to become an entrenched, permanent feature of the labor market in one form of another. The path it takes, and how sustainable it becomes, especially as we enter a post-pandemic period following the Great Resignation, remains to be seen. Employers would be smart to incorporate some degree of choice and autonomy for their workers as they develop new remote-work models, where appropriate, in the hopes of generating more engagement in the process. Incorporating flexibility into a business’s work culture will help attract and retain talent. At the same time, both sides must reassess what maximum efficiency looks like from a business perspective. What is lost from in-person organic connection can easily bleed over into profit margins as workplace synergy and collaboration struggle to catch up. Employers would be wise to ensure they understand the complex legal implications that any remote work policy can have for their business and are encouraged to reach out to an experienced employment attorney.