Is it time to kiss the office goodbye? The upsides of remote work are winning the hearts of employees — and their bosses

 


While tens of millions of U.S. workers have been forced to figure out how to navigate their jobs from home thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, this grand experiment instigated by a relentless virus may be leading to a profoundly altered business reality.

What if they never return to the office?

That’s a question now on the minds of many employees who have found that the hassle of getting ready for, and commuting to, their collective office hustles may be a burden best left in the pre-pandemic world.

For those lucky enough to have jobs that can translate to remote locations, crowded trains and freeway congestion have been replaced with workdays that start instead with logging in to a Zoom meeting and, perhaps, an outfit that translates a “business casual” vibe only from the waist up.

The knock-on past visions of a work world where “telecommuting” would play a pivotal role mostly came from managers who worried the lack of direct supervision would lead to lost productivity. Now, bosses are finding out bottom-line issues are benefiting, in many ways, from employees who may actually be happier, and get more done when working from their nests.

And, those same workers are ready to keep their stay-at-home gigs going, even after the specter of coronavirus restrictions and precautions have passed.

New data from a PwC survey of U.S. executives and office workers conducted in June reflects that a permanent, flexible work week, post-COVID-19 has broad support.

Some 83% of respondents in the worker group sample of 1,200 said they’d like to work remotely at least one day a week and almost a third, 32%, said they’d like to work their entire schedules from home once the pandemic passes.

Among the bosses, 73% said shifting their respective workforces to remote working situations has been a success. And, 44% of the group, comprised of 120 U.S. company executives, said their employees were “more productive” in remote working situations and 55% said most of their employees will have opportunities to work remotely at least one day a week after COVID-19 issues ease.

To be sure, remote work is not without its challenges and, according to at least one analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, is an option that is predominantly available to college-educated employees who earn over $60,000. Using Texas data, the study found that white and Asian workers are also much more likely to have the option than Black or Hispanic employees. And the report also estimated that only 39% of the U.S. workforce currently have jobs that are “remote compatible.”

Both the managers and employees in the report from PwC, also known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, noted their feelings that they were missing out on collaborative opportunities that come with in-person work and, employees said they were looking for ways to alleviate the pressures of being “always-on” amid at-home workdays that have no official beginning or end.

University of Utah David Eccles School of Business professor Glen Kreiner, who has looked at the pros and cons of remote work long before the COVID-19 pandemic, said the relatively positive outcomes from the mass, involuntary migration to remote working did not come as a shock.

“Overall, it’s not surprising that people are finding a lot of positive benefit within the new arrangement,” Kreiner said. “Years ago, when teleworking was being widely discussed, a lot of leaders and managers were afraid to try it and worried about how employees would act ... even though there were a lot of people, a lot of workers who wanted to try it out.”

“Now, it’s been forced on so many people and managers’ concerns have been thrown out the window.”

Kreiner said the line dividing those who prosper in remote work settings versus those who may struggle with being out of the office frequently boils down to personal predispositions.

“The biggest issues are usually found in differences at the level of the individual,” Kreiner said. “Some people are just not cut out for the remote work environment. They need structure, a designated workspace, and the feeling of nearby support.

“Those who excel at self-monitoring, doing their lists, and scheduling time will probably be successful working remotely. These are the things that are imposed on employees in traditional office spaces and, when taken away, will reveal who is best suited to cope.”

Kreiner said physical space can play a role in how manageable working from home is, from a practical standpoint. The challenge of being engaged and productive when working from, say, a one-bedroom apartment with a spouse and two kids in the mix will be different for an employee with the same family mix but a bigger house to work from.

And, Kreiner noted family dynamics themselves can be a major factor in whether the remote work experience is a relative blessing or curse.

“Many years ago there was research was done that showed that if people had a positive family life when given a chance to telecommute, they would see similar high satisfaction with working from home,” Kreiner said. “But if you had challenges at home, issues with family life, working from home would likely be more of a struggle and lead to a decrease in job satisfaction.”

Family, and quality-of-life considerations, were at the center of Tyson Oldham’s decision to morph his pandemic-induced, work-from-home status in a small Silicon Valley apartment to a permanent remote situation in a new, right-sized home in Highland.

Tyson Oldham works in his home office with a view of the mountains in Highland on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.
Tyson Oldham works in his home office with a view of the mountains in Highland on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.
 Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Oldham is the director of finance for Verb Surgical, based in Santa Clara, California. The 5-year-old tech startup, birthed via a collaboration between health product multinational Johnson and Johnson and search giant Google, is developing next-generation devices that bring robotic surgical precision together with an advanced machine-learning platform.

Now, Oldham is set to navigate the best of both worlds, working for the kind of cutting-edge company that California’s Silicon Valley has become famous for while being able to enjoy the lower costs, chiller pace, and easy access to outdoor amenities that Utah has built a reputation on.

And while Oldham said he was definitely a fan of his California work scene, the new family digs come with something his kids were missing in their Bay Area apartment lives. A backyard.

“I enjoyed going into the office and having all the perks ... as well as face-to-face meetings with clients and colleague interactions, and I personally miss those aspects,” Oldham said. “But what was given up in amenities has been more than gained. We have a growing family and used to have to take our kids to the park. Then, even those were roped off when the quarantine orders were in effect.

“Now, we have outdoor access, yard space, a place to grill ... it’s really great.”

Oldham and his wife met when they were both at BYU and while his spouse is from Utah, he grew up in the Denver area. He said Utah and Colorado were both relocation possibilities when they decided to look for a new home outside of California, but the Beehive State won out in part due to its vibrant and growing tech sector.

And there’s no doubt the Oldhams’ income will stretch considerably further in their new neighborhood.

While the family just left an area with one of the highest housing price-to-income ratios in the country, with California’s San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara statistical area coming in at 12.6x, the Oldhams’ new region, Provo-Orem, Utah, saw a 5.0x housing price-to-income factor in the second quarter of 2020, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development statistics.

As so many U.S. office workers achieve new levels of employment bliss in shoes-optional remote work situations, companies around the country have now added remote work options to the their bag of recruitment enticements — a recognition, it seems, that some talent has no plans of subjecting themselves to any further office drudgeries.

Utah business analytics innovator Domo was among the first companies in Utah to push their staff to remote work as the pandemic found a foothold in the state this spring. The company’s 700 or so employees, most of whom are based in the state, continue to work from home and, according to Domo vice president of human resources Ray Ball, that status will continue into the foreseeable future.

Ball said an internal poll conducted in early June found 35% of staffers gave remote work a positive review, 25% were not feeling it and 45% were ambivalent. While the employee reviews were decidedly mixed, Ball said productivity has been high throughout the crisis and projects and initiatives were getting completed on time.

Ball also noted that while “forever scenarios” were not initially part of the company’s thinking when the big shift to remote work went down, he acknowledged that it was now a possibility for at least some of the staff. And, he said the company may be compelled to make it part of its recruitment strategy moving forward if, for no other reason, to compete in a tech market in which competition for top talent is fierce.

“We’ll definitely have to look at it, have to consider it,” Ball said. “We’ll continue to hire the best talent, have the top performing individuals come and live in Utah.

“I feel like successful companies will have to consider their business needs ... and will have to balance that with the needs of current and future employees.”