Picture of a bench on the beach with a laptop on top, as an extreme example of working remotely.

The Pros & Cons of Remote Work

Remote work has gone through a major increase in overall adoption, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some companies allowed employees to work remotely before that, many other businesses followed suit when it became clear that keeping people at home reduced the public health challenges of avoiding a highly contagious virus.

Remote work has numerous benefits for employees and company leaders alike. However, it’s not without downsides. Here are some of the pros and cons to consider before approving or disallowing remote work arrangements.

The pros of working remotely:

Offers more flexibility

Many people working in on-site offices deal with lengthy commutes and find it’s hard to achieve a healthy work-life balance when sticking to rigid schedules. Remote work arrangements vary, but they often allow workers to choose specifics such as their hours and whether they sometimes work in their employers’ buildings.

For example, internal data from sales and marketing software company HubSpot found that two-thirds of the brand’s employees want to work remotely more often. Then, 16% of those polled want to begin full-time remote work, joining hundreds of HubSpot employees who have worked remotely for a while already.

As of January 2021, HubSpot was letting workers choose from three tiers. One has them working in the office at least three days per week, while another puts them there for only two days per week or fewer. Then, there’s an option where people work almost exclusively from home. HubSpot offers specialized support to those who choose to clock in remotely a majority of the time. All workforce members can also switch to a different tier once annually if desired.

Payment company Revolut permits workers to clock in from a different country for up to 60 days out of a year. Jim MacDougall, its vice president of people, said, “Our employees asked for flexibility, and that’s what we’re giving them as part of our ongoing focus on employee experience and choice.”

Streaming provider Spotify takes a similar approach by allowing some employees to choose the city and country they work in, plus agree with their bosses about whether they do it at home, in the office, or go with a hybrid model. If a person wants an office space somewhere the company does not have a physical location yet, Spotify provides support for a coworking space membership.

Encourages better productivity

A prevalent worry is that workers will use the time at home as an opportunity to slack off and lose focus, resulting in overall lower output. However, data shows otherwise. Researchers measured worker productivity from March to August 2020 while the United States was under stay-at-home orders. They then compared it to the same period in 2019, when much of the country’s workforce still got stuff done in traditional offices.

The results showed there was a maximum of 87% of overall employees working productively during the 2020 period. That compared to 79% doing so during 2019. However, the research also indicated that competent leaders were instrumental in helping workers thrive while at home. For example, employees who participated in the survey wanted leaders who could motivate and coach them rather than merely acting as “performers.”

Company leaders must also realize that remote work is not a guarantee for increased productivity. Some people need time to adjust to it, and others ultimately recognize it’ll never suit them.

However, managers can help set workers up for success by giving them practical tips for concentrating while at home. For example, using website blockers can eliminate the temptation of going to YouTube or Facebook while on the clock. Urging people to stick to a schedule can help them use their time wisely.

A different study also showed people were five times more likely to report productivity increases when included in detailed communications. Getting such updates helps them feel involved in their organizations, even while at home. Having an effective communication strategy for remote workers allows them to ask questions that arise about their projects, too.

Aids retention and recruitment

Many employees are now comfortable working remotely and don’t want to go back to conventional offices. A May 2021 global study found that 54% of workers would think about leaving their jobs if their employers did not keep offering some form of workplace flexibility after the pandemic.

Research published elsewhere a month earlier focused on the American workforce. It said 42% of employees would start job searching if their current companies ended remote work options. They’d aim to find companies that do provide it. Insurance company Prudential made that study available — an appropriate decision since its employees split their time between in-office and remote work.

Rob Falzon, the organization’s vice-chair, confirmed, “For Prudential, working nine-to-five, five days a week in the office will be a relic of the past. A hybrid workplace is better for our business and our employees.”

Hiring workers from outside the local geographic area also expands the talent pool available to employers. Plus, time zone differences could mean such employees get tasks done while people on the other side of the world slumber. That could make a significant difference in maintaining productivity on urgent projects. Research from September 2020 also revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic made leaders more willing to hire people from anywhere to work entirely remotely.

Before the virus caused disruptions, only 12% felt open to that idea. The amount rose to 36% by September 2020. Remote work offerings also make it easier to attract candidates who may have limitations that make it more preferable to work at home. Perhaps they have physical disabilities and feel more comfortable in the familiarity of their abodes. Maybe family commitments make long commutes out of the question.

The cons of working remotely:

Limits exposure to company/industry culture

Many news sources refer to remote work as the “new normal.” However, some company leaders won’t make a permanent switch.

While at an industry conference, David Solomon, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO, stated that he wants to get incoming workers inducted into the Wall Street culture from company office desks rather than at home. He clarified, “This is not ideal for us and it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.”

Plus, in Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work Study, many respondents mentioned challenges that more in-person contact could ease. For example, 16% cited communication and collaboration difficulties. Another 16% brought up loneliness as a challenge. Another 12% reported trouble staying motivated, and 7% disliked being in a different time zone than their teammates.

It’s easy to imagine the difficulties of fitting in at a company that’s famous for its culture, such as Google. Someone working remotely for the brand still has the excitement of working for a world-renowned employer. However, they’ll undoubtedly miss out on the buzzing atmosphere associated with the company’s campuses, guest speakers, and in-person events.

Additionally, research published by the American Psychological Society suggested that people are more likely to feel exhausted by remote meetings over platforms like Zoom if those gatherings don’t foster group belonging. Before and after in-person meetings, attendees often socialize, but that doesn’t happen as often remotely.

Managers can compensate by planning a few minutes before a meeting’s start to engage with people about their weekend plans, the best book they’ve read lately, or something similar.

Causes digital overload

Microsoft is another major company that lets its employees work from home part of the time. It created a six-stage system to gradually increase office occupancy as conditions changed during COVID-19. That was a smart decision, since the company has offices worldwide, and countries are at various stages of dealing with the pandemic.

In Stage 4, people can decide to return to working in person. However, Microsoft’s statistics showed that 54% of survey participants who do that spend less than a quarter of their time in one of the company’s facilities.

Even as the tech giant recognizes the value of a hybrid work solution, it measured and published data about the possible adverse effects. The study involved more than 30,000 people in 31 nations.

Statistics showed 40.6 billion more emails were delivered in February 2021 than the previous year. There was also a 145% increase in Microsoft Teams meetings in February 2021 compared to 2020 and a 66% jump in people working on Office documents during that period.

A common assumption is that people from Generation Z are digital natives and the most well-adjusted to remote work. However, Microsoft’s information contradicts that belief. It found that 60% of that group reported flat-out struggling or that they were merely getting by.

Raises cybersecurity risks

Having a remote workforce makes it more challenging to ensure an employee follows cybersecurity rules and best practices. For example, many companies have systems to detect when a new Wi-Fi-enabled device attempts to join a corporate network, allowing some oversight over which gadgets people use to access resources for their jobs. However, it’s much harder to check that workers take cybersecurity precautions at home.

An associated issue is that they often don’t get new guidance about which new processes to follow to mitigate cyber risks while working remotely. A June 2020 study from IBM Security discussed how more than 80% of respondents worked at home rarely or never before the pandemic. Plus, more than 50% of that group received no new cybersecurity training related to the remote transition.

Another eye-opening finding was that nearly half of people in this situation felt concerned about how their new work arrangements could cause elevated cyber risks. Potential problems become more severe for people who regularly handle sensitive information, such as customer service agents working for e-commerce companies or banks.

IBM’s research also confirmed that in addition to not providing people with additional cybersecurity training, company representatives often had them working from personal laptops. More specifically, although 93% of people felt confident they could keep personally identifiable information secure from home, 53% said they were working from non-company-provided computers.

People often don’t stay on top of software updates associated with computers they own. It’s different when using company-managed machines because IT teams usually have automatic update features activated. Outdated operating systems and software products give cybercriminals easier access, but updates frequently include security patches to address known vulnerabilities.

Conclusion; no universally appropriate answer:

These remote working advantages and disadvantages will help business leaders make informed decisions about whether it’s a good approach for their employees. However, it’s impossible to conclude that remote work is always a good or bad idea.

Many people — such as those working as plumbers, veterinarians, and grocery store stockers — have few or no remote options due to what their jobs require. Others find the prospect of working alone without in-person support incredibly isolating.

Thus, anyone thinking about possibly moving forward with remote work should consider hybrid options and arrangements where people can go back to fully in-person schedules if working at home does not suit them. Doing that lets employees and their supervisors weigh what’s best for individual circumstances and adjust as situations evolve.

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