How Different Perspectives Affect the Remote Work Debate

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Technology developed over the past two decades has enabled many employees to work from home or in other remote environments. In particular, laptop computers and wireless Internet connections with virtual private networks (VPNs) have created opportunities for people to perform their tasks in many different physical locations.

Despite this, remote working wasn’t the norm until 2020. Even when some top companies ventured down this path, the experiment often ended on the whim of a CEO. As an example, the work-from-home program at Yahoo lasted from 2007 to 2013. Importantly, the decision to abandon it seemed based not on evidence of the program’s failure, but on a belief in the intangible benefits of -person interactions.

Regardless of these early setbacks in the move towards remote working, continued advancements in technology and more frequent (albeit brief) employee experiences (for example, during sick leave) have positioned the workforce for early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a large-scale experiment with the practice. In October 2020, Pew Research determined that 71% of employees whose tasks could be performed remotely worked from home all or most of the time, a marked increase from the 23% who worked remotely before the pandemic.

Because the threat of COVID-19 has subsided, some employees have resumed normal on-site work, many have partially returned (e.g., with a limited number of specified days in the office), and some have not returned at all. According to the Kastle Back to Work Barometer, the US weekday building access rate for September 2022 was less than half the pre-March 2020 rate. It remains to be seen whether employees will ever return in similar numbers to pre-COVID-19 days.

Objective factors and subjective factors

Despite the move toward remote work for many employees, many jobs cannot be done remotely. For example, blue-collar and healthcare workers, along with others deemed “essential” during the pandemic, have never had the opportunity to step away from their normal work environment, even though they have seen friends and family go through this experience.

It’s hard to make a strong objective argument against remote work. Indeed, most studies point to improvements in work performance and productivity when working remotely. See, for example, a meta-analysis of telecommuting before the pandemic (Gajendran and Harrison, 2007), as well as the gains measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics after the onset of the pandemic.

Subjective factors (organizational culture, strategic issues, perceptions of employees and other stakeholders) are also important and should be considered in discussions about remote work. Many people have strong feelings and beliefs about its relevance and viability, whether or not based on objective research.

Employee Perceptions of Remote Work Survey

An April 2022 SHRM remote work survey found that there are huge differences in how remote work is generally perceived by other employees, depending on their own work situation. The results represent an assessment of these perceptions. The study involved 1,702 participants from a wide range of jobs and industries, of which 457 were fully remote, 510 were fully onsite, and the remainder were a combination of remote and onsite.

When asked how many hours remote employees worked, 44% of onsite workers believed that remote employees worked fewer hours than onsite workers; however, only 8% of remote workers shared this belief. Similarly, when asked about the productivity of remote workers, 35% of onsite workers believe that remote workers are less productive than onsite workers; only 5% of remote workers shared this belief.

These differences are huge and reveal major disconnects in how remote workers are viewed – largely unspoken employee perspectives until now.

Slackers or Suckers?

To put it bluntly, these results indicate that traditional on-site workers see remote workers as “slacker” who don’t put in the same amount of time or effort needed to do a good job. On the other hand, the vast majority of teleworkers surveyed (82%) believe that having to work in an office makes no sense when the work can be done remotely. These teleworkers view on-site workers as “suckers” forced into positions that waste time and money, minimize their flexibility, and hurt their quality of life.

The different belief systems revealed in the research results seem to play out in boardroom and canteen discussions. The leaders and managers of the organization are likely members of the survey participant group working entirely on-site, whose perceptions are that working remotely does not equal hard, productive work.

More research needed

It is important to note that actual differences (versus perceived differences) in job performance of remote workers have not been established. It could be that traditional in-person work environments are more conducive to efficiency and success for professional roles that rely on factors such as brainstorming and close teamwork. But we have to be sure. Good empirical research can address this important topic. It will take time. SHRM hopes to uncover the truth by highlighting these studies and ensuring that the public finds out about the results.

Another source of guidance on working remotely is the SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge (SHRM BASK), the foundational document for SHRM certification, specifically the relationship management and Consultation behavioral skills. Workforce management and Managing a Global Workforcetwo functional areas of technical competence of SHRM BASK, HR expertiseare also relevant.

Mark Smith, Ph.D., is director of HR Thought Leadership for the SHRM Research Institute.

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