Is remote work all it’s cracked up to be?
Gallup published a summary of the benefits of remote work from their research over the last decade or so. As they pointed out, at the same time that remote work was becoming more widespread, some workers were being pulled back into the office, most notably at the federal level. But, now that we’re all forced to work at home, let’s take a look at the benefits, as well as some of the problems, with remote work.
Benefits of remote work
According to Gallup’s long research on the “State of the American Workplace,” flexibility – which includes remote work options – improves engagement and retention. Gallup’s research demonstrates a clear correlation between engagement and productivity, and with those productivity gains come improvements in overall business performance: “Highly engaged workplaces can claim 41 percent lower absenteeism, 40 percent fewer quality defects, and 21 percent higher profitability.”
Gallup found that spending 60-80 percent of work time out of the office seems to provide the maximum boost to engagement and, at the same time, minimizes active disengagement. Face time and connection with co-workers appears to be vitally important in keeping everyone engaged and motivated.
Another benefit to remote work is the environmental impact. As we’ve seen, the decrease in driving has meant that people can see mountains and scenery that’s been shrouded in smog for years. As Gallup’s research with millennials points out, a company’s stance on environmental issues plays a role in employee retention.
In addition to environmental issues, millennials also want a workplace with a better work-life balance. They’re not willing to put their lives on hold and sacrifice in exchange for a paycheck. Remote work and flexible policies help them integrate work and life.
Gallup found that those who work 100 percent remotely need extra support. However, they also found that fully remote workers have about the same level of engagement as non-remote workers. This would seem to indicate there shouldn’t have been any major difference in engagement when we all had to shift to remote work. However, that hasn’t been quite the case.
A dark side to remote work
Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom says that forcing everyone to work from home may not work out too well. In his previous research on remote work, Bloom’s findings were consistent with what Gallup found. In a study performed in China, he found that remote work increased employee productivity by almost one full day per five-day workweek, and decreased the attrition rate by 50 percent.
However, there are some big differences between that study in China and our current situation. Crucially, the study subjects all volunteers to work remotely. Also, they were not working in teams, and they all returned to the office one day a week.
But, now, almost everyone who can work remotely is doing so out of necessity. Many had only a few days – or hours – to make the switch, so they are adjusting to a new mode of working without the benefit of orientation on best practices. Businesses are scrambling to create processes to make it work.
Also, these newly remote workers are working in a difficult situation. As Bloom says, “We are home working alongside our kids, in unsuitable spaces, with no choice and no in-office days.” Some, like my husband – a middle-school teacher – are discovering that Zoom meetings are not always a great substitute for being there in person.
Parents with school-age children are having an especially tough time. In addition to figuring out this new mode of working, they are also full-time baby-sitters and teachers. In our current situation, working from home may be, in Bloom’s words, “a productivity disaster.”
In another interview, Bloom warns that isolation may also lead to mental health challenges down the road. A parallel is the many studies of retirees whose health declines precipitously when they’re no longer spending time with others at work.
What does this mean for accountants?
A common thread in the research by Bloom and Gallup is the boost to productivity that comes from connection with team members. Now, we obviously can’t gather in person these days, but we can still have conversations on the phone or online. The additional effort to make that connection will be well worth it.
Our clients are also going through similar challenges. Perhaps, the best thing we can do to reinforce our place as trusted advisors is to spend extra time connecting with them and listening to their challenges.