The future of the workplace: at home or back to the office ?

As we approach month ten of the coronavirus-19 pandemic, the question on the minds of many is what “normal” will look like post-COVID. Which adaptations will remain, and which will revert back to the pre-COVID standard? A study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers reflects that 72% of individuals surveyed would like to continue working from home at least 2 days per week.

What was once a luxury reserved to select industries is now the reality of over half of American workers (Guyot and Sawhill). Teleworking, or telecommuting, is the act of conducting one’s professional responsibilities from the comfort of one’s own home. To adhere to the sanitation restrictions imposed by COVID-19, employers were urged to transition as many employees as possible to teleworking. According to the Pew Research Center, “the option to perform a job remotely may prove a lifeline for many workers” (Kochhar and Passel). But as talks of a vaccine become increasingly optimistic, what will become of teleworkers when sanitary measures are no longer a workplace condition?

Statistics suggest that the continuation of teleworking, at least a few days out of the week, is the most lucrative option for both employers and employees.

If these past few months have been a reliable indicator, teleworking can have a positive impact on the work-life balance and even on the environment. Although employers may be skeptical of employee performance, research shows that working remotely actually boosts productivity and job satisfaction (Guyot and Sawhill). Allowing employees to work from home even offers financial benefits for proprietors.

Before teleworking, many Americans found themselves adding commute time onto the traditional 8-hour workday. This meant an additional window of time committed to getting to work on time, and dealing with personal responsibilities upon arriving at home in the evening. For those employees with children this also meant arranging childcare via family and friends, or a paid childcare service. While working from home eliminates these struggles, it does create new ones: How can someone be a full-time employee and a full-time parent simultaneously? The shift to teleworking does require re-establishing boundaries between personal and professional life, and time management. However, the overall benefit stands that working remotely offers greater flexibility and more agency in how one manages one’s time.

These daily commutes also have a negative impact on the environment. Carbon emissions from cars and public transport pollutes the air and makes it unhealthy for humans as well as other living creatures. Some studies have suggested that air pollution has been decreasing since the start of the pandemic, showing just how much of an effect teleworking can have. However, the University of Sussex did a comparative study across multiple countries to see how much teleworking can really reduce carbon emissions. It is important to note that a third of the studies examined showed either no change, an increase in energy use, or unclear results (Anthropocene). It appears that many of the positive environmental effects of telecommuting are at times cancelled out by new variables brought into play, as employees use their at-home appliances during the day and do not have access to a shared printer like they would in a typical office space. In order for teleworking to truly be more sustainable, it will be important to find ways to make these practices more energy-efficient.

Historically, employers have preferred in-office work so as to monitor the productivity levels of employees. With the cliché surrounding remote work being that it leads to decreased productivity, research shows that the opposite may in fact be true. A study conducted at a Chinese travel agency found that employees allowed to work from home reported a 13% performance improvement (Guyot and Sawhill). Additionally, employees with the option to work from home are reported to take fewer days off from work. While this may be true, individuals teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic have reported the desire for employer assistance in establishing work-life boundaries in order to improve their productivity (PwC).

In addition to the benefits for employees are the potential benefits for employers. Among them are the reduced costs of supplies and workspace as a result of fewer individuals being in the office physically. Sanitation measures will most likely be enforced for the foreseeable future and thus may lead to the continued need for physical distancing. However, a study conducted by PwC found that one-third of executives predict that they will need less office space primarily as a result of teleworking. Even if this may be the case, employees will still need a space for team collaboration and socialization. With this being the number one reason reported by employees for physically going into the office, the availability of an office space remains relevant.

Ultimately 73% of executives said that shifting to teleworking as a result of COVID-19 was a success (PwC). With that being said, the benefits must be weighed along with the costs. As social creatures, human beings have an undeniable need for interpersonal interaction. Unfortunately for some, the combination of social distancing and remote working imposed by COVID-19 has posed as social isolation. While employers may benefit from offering continued remote working, the needs of employees that are created as a result of teleworking must also be addressed.

Written by Shelby Cane and Madelyn Colvin

Works Cited

DeWeerdt, Sarah. “The Hidden Carbon Tradeoffs of Telecommuting.” Anthropocene Magazine, Anthropocene Magazine, 19 May 2020, http://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2020/05/the-hidden-carbon-tradeoffs-of-telecommuting/?fbclid=IwAR0Ydw0JPMMaxz7dXZG1zXsbWtIZudZrYdAlG1I5a1Bdx5i1O9kOVe2if7A.

Guyot, Katherine, and Isabel V Sawhill. “Telecommuting Will Likely Continue Long after the Pandemic.” Brookings, The Brookings Institution, 6 Apr. 2020, http://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/06/telecommuting-will-likely-continue-long-after-the-pandemic/.

Kochhar, Rakesh, and Jeffrey S Passel. “Telework May Save U.S. Jobs in COVID-19 Downturn, Especially among College Graduates.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 26 Aug. 2020, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/05/06/telework-may-save-u-s-jobs-in-covid-19-downturn-especially-among-college-graduates/.

“US Remote Work Survey.” PwC, PwC, 25 June 2020, http://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html.

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