A Year Online

In the year since many of us were pushed into remote work arrangements article after article have popped up to declare that remote work and flexible work arrangements are the “future of work.” Of course, it’s easy to jump to that conclusion. In purely economic terms, the global telework experiment has proven successful, and trends conclude that remote work and flexible work arrangements are possible, even increasing productivity in many cases while minimizing employee turnover. But underlying the productivity gains and employee retention that many have praised thus far is the stewing reality that cannot be quantified in numbers: employee well-being.

Beyond the easily quantifiable productivity gains and economic efficiencies, the businesses of the future will undoubtedly be run by people, driven by workplace culture, and shaped by societal norms. Before discussing the future of work or praising one office arrangement over the other, we need to do what was neglected pre-pandemic during discussions between employees and their supervisors. We need to talk about the toll remote work can take on people who, in various circumstances, can be negatively impacted. Getting the biggest bang for your buck in terms of business growth and efficiency means calling the issue what it is: a people problem.

Remote work pre-pandemic

Long before laptops and speedy wifi connections, one of the earliest examples of a telework arrangement was IBM’s foray into telecommuting back in 1979. Still more concept than reality, it was only one of a slew of forward-thinking innovations that marked the IBM years of technological innovation. Most ordinary workers had little interest in what then deemed science fiction. However, as interconnected computers began taking hold in the professional world, interest in telework grew.

Beginning in 2013, a series of scholarly papers seemed to add scholarly evidence of this trend toward remote work arrangements integrated into traditional business structures. The most influential study, headed by Prof. Nicholas Bloom, reported a 13% increase in performance among call center employees selected to work from home. Prof. Bloom noted that “Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction and experienced less turnover.” However, Prof. Bloom’s study also found that remote call center workers were 50% less likely to be promoted than their in-office colleagues. Another study by Gallup indicated that remote work improved employee engagement but warned that “engagement is not an exercise in making employees feel happy — it’s a strategy for better business outcomes.”

A slew of pro-telework articles simplified Prof. Bloom’s conclusions and pumped out fodder for work-from-home hopefuls attempting to sway superiors the way of flexible working arrangements. The media buzz that pointed to these studies skewed in favor of the work-from-home-model. Many amplified productivity gains and low turnover while downplaying the adverse experiences of teleworkers. Worst of all, they ignored the obvious mismatch between a position at a call center, where inputs and outputs can be precisely measured in terms of phone calls made, and positions filled by many knowledge workers where inputs are more likely to be measured by the completion of a months-long project.

The pushback on remote work that caught headlines was similarly obtuse. When Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer announced an end to the company’s remote work policies in 2013, the general consensus was that this was a sign of the collapse of remote work. Big Blue followed soon after, canning its decades-long telework experiment in 2017, adding IBM to an already growing list of what would be called remote work failures. But the issue that caught the most attention wasn’t the feasibility of remote work. Instead, most commentators and consequently uninformed managers latched on to the fact that both of these companies were associated with poor financial performance — an attempt to diagnose the problem that brought these companies down and quarantine the source. Contrary to this narrative, the remote work bans were small pieces of a much broader plan to turn these companies around — plans that eventually failed.

The important conversations that we should have been paying far more attention to, however, were those in the background that focused on the negative mental health outcomes experienced by some remote workers. Some of the reported warning signs included heightened anxiety and sleeplessness due to the lack of face-to-face social interactionmental and physical fatiguelower likelihood of promotions, and conflicted work-life balance.

Jodi Oakman added to the list of warning signs when she published a rapid review of telework research, highlighting the clear trends of research showing that employees who worked more days at home “experienced greater emotional exhaustion and cognitive stress associated with reduced social support from their colleagues.” Oakman also warned that “technostress” — “the inability to cope with new technologies in a healthy manner” — was likely associated with the type of role an employee performs, with low autonomy roles leading to higher degrees of technostress than higher autonomy roles. In a 2018 survey conducted by DigitalOcean, 40% of remote workers said “they felt as though they were expected to contribute more” as a result of their working arrangement. As many as 61% said they felt excluded from “‘offline team communications’” like passing conversations in a hallway or water cooler discussions.

How the pandemic affected the roles of knowledge workers

Clearly, there were issues among the 13% of our workforce already working remotely that had yet to be addressed in our pre-pandemic world. But ready or not, when states began shutting down in March of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, companies turned to telework arrangements, setting in motion the largest teleworking experiment ever conducted. It wasn’t long before some began writing about a world where telework and flexible work arrangements would become permanent. Even those who have long warned against the pervasiveness of screens loosened their grip. However, when it comes to remote workers’ well-being — many of whom have spent a little more than a year staring at a screen, cooped up in their homes, and shut off from their colleagues — these technophilic declarations overlooked the mental health issues lurking under the surface.

Obviously, as my colleague Megan Jenkins rightly points out, “Remote work has clear benefits for workers and employees alike, but the current public health crisis may be pushing us toward this trend more quickly than we would prefer.” Moreover, a global pandemic has certainly been an ongoing source of concern and anxiety contributing to declining employee well-being that goes beyond the remote work vs. in-person work debate. However, even with the added variable of a pandemic to consider, some important work has been done that focuses on the psychological stress of remote work that may provide invaluable insight into a remote worker’s life.

One study conducted by Microsoft during the height of the pandemic last summer, for example, published significant findings based on brain scans. One finding was that while teleworkers felt included when everyone joined remote meetings, video conferencing also led to greater instances of fatigue. To make up for lulls in productivity, employees put in longer hours, leading to even greater fatigue. A separate survey conducted by TELUS International added to this finding, reporting that even after employees logged off for the day, 4 out of 5 respondents found difficulty shutting off after a hard day’s work.

What’s more, the frequent video conferencing and physical isolation many are enduring is leading to higher rates of burnout. Since the pandemic alone, Gallup reports, burnout among employees exclusively working from home has gone from 18% to 29% — and the numbers are likely only to get worse. As Laszlo Bock, former Human Resources Chief for Google, commented, “There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable.’”

Moving forward

At a fundamental level, as Laurel Farrer puts it, “The ‘new normal ‘… [is] just a world where we focus on work instead of the office.” But at the end of the day, the future of work isn’t a technological problem; it’s a people problem. Making meaningful changes to the workplace is only possible through changes to workplace culture and societal norms. Without these cultural changes, workplaces will gravitate back to what is familiar and widely accepted.

When we fully “come back to life” in the U.S., there will be more instances of remote work after proving its feasibility through the worst of times. But focusing only on the gains in productivity and employee engagement is not enough to make lasting change. Structuring the future workplace will require a dynamic solution that balances business efficiency with employee well-being.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has the right idea, saying,” ‘I think we’re going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale, for sure, but we’re going to do this in a way that is measured, and thoughtful and responsible, and in phases over time.’” Even though we won’t truly know the answer until we begin testing things out post-pandemic, other companies should follow Facebook’s lead.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.