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Remote Work Can Be a Lot Better Than This

Under the right conditions (i.e., not during a pandemic), telework can be great for both employers and employees

Published: Thursday, May 20, 2021 - 12:03

This story was originally published by Knowable Magazine.

Working from home—formally known as telework—is here to stay. A 2021 survey of approximately 30,000 Americans concluded that, after the pandemic, 20 percent of all work days may continue to take place at home, vs. just 5 percent before.

This is likely welcome news to many people who have jobs that can be done remotely. But some teleworkers are juggling work with childcare and online schooling, itching to gossip with co-workers, and wanting to brainstorm ideas with a human being rather than a screenshot. Some employers, meanwhile, are concerned about productivity among out-of-sight workers. For them, telework through Covid has been pretty terrible.

I have been a work-family scholar for more than 15 years, and one of my areas of expertise is flexible work arrangements, including telework. I can say with authority that the abrupt transition to working full-time from home, set against the surreal and terrifying backdrop of a global pandemic, is not telework; it is forced telework. And it’s a far cry from what research recommends.

So to the doubters, I say: Take heart. Telework, when done well, can be a lot more productive and enjoyable—for both employers and employees—than what we are experiencing.

Many at-home workers lack a designated workspaceMany at-home workers lack a designated workspace and have to juggle both their jobs and childcare. That’s a far cry from ideal teleworking conditions, research shows.

Full disclosure: I love working from home. I started after a decade spent working in offices, often where long, in-person hours were required. But ever since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation, I have been working from home two to three days per week. In the suburbs of Montréal where I now live, I am lucky to be able to work with a view of our garden, the birds, and the occasional hare or groundhog.

I believe I am equally—if not more—productive at home as I am in an office, and I’m not alone. According to data collected before the pandemic hit, teleworkers report approximately one extra productive hour per workday when they are at home compared with the office.

For many people, the shift to remote work is working out: During Covid, surveys of hundreds of Italians found that teleworkers report less stress and work-family conflict than people who did not work from home, although teleworkers also report working more hours. Moreover, the survey of 30,000 Americans found that, even during the throes of the Covid pandemic, most remote workers said they were more productive at home than they had anticipated.

Telework can be a huge benefit to both employers and employees—when done well, that is.

But for others, telework isn’t working out. In a survey of 1,663 adults in Germany published in October 2020, people—especially working mothers—reported less satisfaction with work and family life during lockdowns. Other data from Canadian workers suggest that work productivity fell during the first months of the pandemic. Struggles with telework may exacerbate the rising rates of mental health issues; a December survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found that more than 42 percent of people had symptoms of anxiety or depression, up from 11 percent the year before.

There are signs that employers aren’t fully satisfied, either. Experts following dozens of companies in various sectors are seeing increases in the use of monitoring tools to track teleworkers’ behavior, suggesting that these companies aren’t trusting their remote workers.

But evidence suggests that it’s shortsighted of companies to withhold that trust, because telework can be a huge benefit to both employers and employees—when done well, that is. Here’s how telework should look:
When: A meta-analysis of 46 studies on telework shows that working from home up to two or three days per week lets employees reap the benefits of telework without harming relationships with co-workers.
What: Telework requires that one is able to focus on work, not childcare or schooling, and has a dedicated, ergonomic workspace with reliable internet and software. Again, we are falling short here, due to school and childcare closures, as well as lack of space. A recent French study of 2,003 adults found that 41 percent of men and only 25 percent of women had an isolated room for work.
Who: Research suggests that certain people will take to telework more than others, such as those who are already comfortable in their jobs, like to work independently, are self-disciplined, and are good planners. Others—those new to a job or role, procrastinators, and people who need social interactions—might struggle more.
How: Employees and managers need to agree up front on communications routines (e.g., start-of-the-day phone call, weekly check-in using Zoom), performance objectives, and evaluation criteria to ensure teleworkers are not penalized during performance reviews compared with onsite workers.
Skills: Managers should receive specific training and support to best help teleworking employees. Remaining connected after work hours is associated with more work-family conflict and emotional exhaustion, so people at home need to develop boundaries. They can do so by turning off the computer by a set time at the end of the workday, and disconnecting during the weekend.

As we transition out of the Covid-19 crisis, let’s not turn away from what could be a vast improvement in the lives and productivity of many. This year is not how telework has to work.

A version of this article first appeared in the Montreal Gazette.

This article is part of Reset: The Science of Crisis & Recovery , an ongoing series exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its consequences, and the way forward. Reset is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

This article originally appeared April 26, 2021, in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

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About The Authors

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre’s picture

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre is an organizational scholar who studies the interactions between work, family and technology at the University of Québec in Montréal's School of Management (ESG-UQAM).

Knowable Magazine’s picture

Knowable Magazine

Knowable Magazine is an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. Sign up for Knowable Magazine’s newsletter.