While many everyday activities are slowly beginning to resume – like having a haircut or going to the cinema – there are certain parts of our lives, including our workplaces, that will likely change permanently. Where and how people work from now on is going to look a lot different than it used to as society transitions to being forever-remote.
For many workers and their companies, social distancing turned a slow move towards more remote working into an urgent necessity. In the space of only a few months, remote work went from an occasional, but increasingly common, job perk to the one thing keeping large parts of the economy functioning. In 2018, an estimated 5.2% of workers in the U.S. worked remotely. A study conducted by MIT in May 2020 shows that almost half of all workers may be working remotely at the moment.
Now that co-located work may be possible again soon; many companies face serious questions about their future office footprint. Some companies, like Twitter and Square, have already taken the initiative and embraced “forever-remote” working. With forever-remote policies, employees never have to come into the office again if they don’t want to. This policy is a drastic shift away from offices as collaborative spaces. It also raises some big questions about what a forever-remote working world would look like and why companies might choose to embrace it.
Most employees don’t want to go back to the office
Not every company will be able to shift to a distributed workforce permanently. However, those that do are more likely to keep their employees happy. Research shows that, even before the COVID-19 crisis, employees overwhelmingly wanted to work at least some of the time remotely.
A 2019 study of nearly 200 remote workers found that people who work remotely are more satisfied with their jobs. Working remotely cuts down on distractions within the workplace and increases workers’ sense of autonomy. Plus, by cutting out the daily commute to an office, employees can save at least $100 per month on average.
Remote work also comes with advantages for employee wellbeing. Despite the seemingly endless stream of Zoom meetings, remote working cuts down on distraction and, therefore, stress. Even though research shows some people find it harder to switch off after work, remote employees can work more efficiently and fit their work around their life, rather than the other way around. In some cases, working from home might even save your marriage. A long commute can make you 40% more likely to get divorced.
Working for a company that offers forever-remote opportunities also allows employees to choose where they want to live based on personal preference, rather than basing that decision on proximity to the office.
The reason tech giants are embracing remote-forever
While employees are often quick to embrace the prospect of working remotely, most CEOs and managers are a little more cautious — but maybe they shouldn’t be. Companies across the world are seeing unexpected benefits from remote work.
Perhaps one of the most surprising advantages of remote working is improved productivity. Put simply, people who work remotely get more done. A recent study by Harvard Business School shows that remote employees produce 4% more work each day while spending less time on communication.
This increased productivity equates to the average employee working an extra week each year at no additional cost to their employer. The link between remote work and productivity is backed by further research, including a 2014 study by Stanford featuring thousands of employees at the Chinese travel agency formerly known as Ctrip (now Trip.com). According to the study, employees allowed to work remotely were around 13% more productive than employees working in the office.
As well as increasing productivity, going forever-remote presents other opportunities for businesses. Embracing a distributed workforce means rethinking business practices and cutting down on wasted time with approaches like workflow automation. This shift also allows companies to embrace AI in their work processes by automating repetitive tasks like invoicing and accounting.
Will forever-remote work create more diverse companies?
Even though diverse companies are generally more productive than homogeneous ones, a lack of diversity is a significant issue in every business sector. While remote work won’t solve cultural problems within society or organisations themselves, a forever-remote policy can still promote diversity. Having the option to work remotely some or all of the time makes certain jobs more accessible to more people.
The flexibility afforded by forever-remote work policies allows companies to attract and retain a wider pool of employees from different places. This geographical flexibility may counter the noted tendency of tech-focused cities such as San Francisco to decrease in diversity as growing clusters of tech companies price out locals.
As the importance of “office centricity” declines, it also becomes easier to break down homogenous cultures within workplaces. Studies show that cultural norms influence hiring decisions in the typical office environment. In many industries, an unspoken requirement for the cultural similarity between employees and their bosses can exclude entire groups of people and cultures from even being considered for certain professions. By switching to a more results-focused mode of working, remote work could help address this problem.
Remote work also allows people with nontraditional schedules to fit into the workforce. Often-excluded workers, such as stay-at-home moms (who are only half as likely as other applicants to be called back for an interview), can benefit from the increased flexibility offered by remote working.
Forever-remote is the future
Transitioning a business that, up until four or five months ago, was based in an office to one where most of the employees may never be in the same room again is no small task. As well as the practical aspects of moving to a distributed workforce model, companies also need to consider the ideological elements.
For many businesses, going forever-remote requires a significant shift in mindset as well as location. However, the effort to change is more than worthwhile, as forever-remote presents an opportunity for happier, more productive, and more diverse workforces.
Laura Martisiute is a freelance writer with Optimist. She’s a content marketing specialist with years of experience diving deep into the latest research on technology, business strategy, and more recently, the effects of remote work.