Despite What You Hear, the Jury is Still Out on Remote Work

John Hollon COVID-19, employee experience, Employee Relations, Organizational Development, Workplace Flexibilty

Here’s a confession: I was working remotely long before working remotely was cool.

Way back in 2010, when I was Editor of Workforce Management, our corporate leadership decided they had enough of California, thank you very much, and decided to move Workforce from Southern California to Chicago — after first floating the possibility of moving to Detroit.

The best thing to come out of the relocate-to-Detroit rumor was a joke — how do you get people from California to WANT to move to Chicago? You know the answer … first make them think they have to move to Detroit.

(Author’s note: Apologies to my fellow FOT colleague Tim Sackett and anyone else from Detroit, but I’m sure you’ve heard worse. Now back to my story … )

A lot more Americans are working remotely

As I was pondering whether to move with Workforce to Chicago, the CEO of ERE Media reached out to me about launching a new HR and talent management website for him — and he told me I could stay in California and work from home to boot.

It wasn’t a tough choice. After decades of working and managing people in far-flung newsrooms from California to Montana, Hawaii to Kentucky, I wasn’t eager to move my family again. Working from home was preferable to that … even if I was unsure about my new life as a remote worker.

So I took the plunge and worked remotely. I also developed and edited the the well known HR and talent management website, TLNT. All in all, it worked out well and I adjusted pretty well to working outside a traditional office.

That’s why it’s not all that big a surprise that a great many organizations have been able to make remote work work for them as they struggle for ways to keep their businesses going during the coronavirus lockdown.

In fact, the numbers are pretty amazing, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out this week. They said:

“The number of Americans working solely from home has at least doubled, and possibly tripled, since before the pandemic. At its peak in early May, 52% of employed Americans reported always working from home, and another 18% reported sometimes working from home, for a total of 70%, according to a survey by polling firm Gallup.

That represents more than 100 million people in the U.S. alone. In the week ending July 12, the total declined to 53%. Even that is significantly higher than the 43% of workers who reported working from home at least part time in 2016, the last time Gallup asked Americans about their work-from-home habits.

Many of those workers aren’t going back anytime soon. A survey of corporate leaders conducted by Gartner on June 5 found that in the future, 82% plan to allow remote working at least some of the time; 47% said they intend to allow full-time remote work going forward. A recent Microsoft survey of managers yielded the same result: 82% said they will have more flexible work-from-home policies after the pandemic.”

Limitations of remote work

Now that we’re more than four months into the remote work revolution and have a little more perspective, two things have become clear from two stories published on consecutive days last week by The Wall Street Journal:

  1. Remote work is booming everywhere and shows little sign of slowing down; and,
  2. The limits of remote work are becoming more apparent — and it’s making a lot of organizations reconsider how sustainable it is.

One of the stories in The Wall Street Journal got into something you don’t hear much about, and the headline says it all — Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All.

Here’s the crux of it, according to the WSJ:

“Months into a pandemic that rapidly reshaped how companies operate, an increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.

There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable,’” said Laszlo Bock, chief executive of human-resources startup Humu and the former HR chief at Google. No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked and leveled off, he adds, because workers left offices in March armed with laptops and a sense of doom.”

“It was people being terrified of losing their jobs, and that fear-driven productivity is not sustainable,” Mr. Bock said.

The loss of “casual collaboration”

Here’s my take: The one big thing that troubles me about remote work is this — the loss of what I refer to as “casual collaboration.”

I noticed it almost immediately when I started to work from home, and it’s the loss of the personal, unplanned discussions that happen all day long in an office environment. It’s when somebody sticks their head into somebody’s office, or cube, and makes a comment, asks a question, or says something that leads to an unplanned conversation that helps solve a problem or move the business ahead.

It may be something small, but sometimes, the conversation gets into a larger discussion that helps solve an issue that a more formal or structured conversation — like a scheduled meeting — would not have resolved.

I’m sure most of you have had this experience sometime. You know how it goes: Jennifer or Anthony pop their head into your workspace to ask a question, tell a joke, or share something personal. There is no agenda behind what they’re doing, but something happens in that brief exchange that takes the discussion in a different direction — and that direction leads to a possible answer to a nagging issue or problem.

You just don’t get that experience when you work remotely.

You also don’t get it on Zoom either, and I know this because I work with a company based in New Zealand where we have Zoom meetings all week long. They’re generally pretty good, but they simply don’t do what a personal interaction does.

I’ve found it especially bad with all the Zoom meetings my church has been having to replace face to face gatherings since the coronavirus lockdown. This experience has made me better understand that churches are built on fellowship and people getting together to share and have a sense of community and camaraderie.

Well, you get ZERO sense of fellowship on Zoom. It just doesn’t replace, say, a Saturday Bible breakfast that is really less about the Bible and more about gathering together to eat and share stories among the group. It’s unscripted, somewhat unplanned, and all about sharing personally with others.

The Chief HR Officer of Discover Financial Services summed it up pretty nicely when he told the WSJ that, “It was easier to go remote fast than most people would have ever imagined. That doesn’t mean it’s great.”

No, remote work isn’t great, and it certainly isn’t a long-term solution for what ails the economy right now. But the Journal article makes it pretty clear: Although remote work is good for some jobs, it really is just a stop-gap measure for a lot of employers who have had to deploy it.

Yes, the jury is still out on the future of remote work. I’ve made it work for me over the past 10 years, but I still miss the powerful personal interactions I had in the office. And you can’t just replace those with email, Slack, or Zoom.

And if you work remotely, I bet you do too.