Employees who work entirely from home are less creative and less productive, according to a new working paper from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. Fully remote employees also receive less feedback and must spend more time coordinating. As a result, they work longer hours to keep up with their in-office peers.
But the researchers nevertheless predict we will see even more remote work in the future. That raises the question: If WFH has so many drawbacks, why can we expect more of it? And maybe more important: If we will be doing more of it, how can we mitigate its downsides?
The paper, by Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom and Stephen J. Davis, notes that the share of people working from home at least some of the time has doubled roughly every 15 years since about 1980; by 2019, about 5% of workdays took place at home. That figure surged to 60% in 2020 and has now plateaued at about 25%. The authors say the change between 2019 and 2023 levels amounts to fast-forwarding the remote-work revolution by about 35 years.
They expect to see remote work decline slowly for the next couple of years as companies pressure workers to return before accelerating again for the next 20. In part, that will be the continuation of the long-term trend; and in part, it will be fueled by pandemic-era innovations. The number of patents mentioning terms like "telework" tripled after March 2020, and in the past, those kinds of advances have sent more workers remote.
The findings hold an important implication for corporate leaders: Exhorting employees to return to the office full-time may be wasted energy. Fast internet connections have made at least some degree of remote work inevitable. Rather than trying to fight omnipresent technology, organisations might be better served by figuring out how to address challenges of fully remote work — disengagement, slower learning, even loneliness.
Fortunately, those downsides do not always apply to what a lot of employees are doing now, which is hybrid work: alternating days in the office with days at home. In fact, hybrid work is associated with productivity gains. The debate that has been raging since the Covid vaccines started going into arms is around how many days of face time matter.
But even if we could definitively answer that question, I am not sure the answer would influence behaviour as much as we assume. A lot of work will become virtual, whether we like it or not.
In fact, a lot of it already has. Some of the management problems that leaders have reported struggling with during the pandemic — meeting creep, employees who send a dozen emails instead of having a five-minute conversation, monitoring and giving feedback to workers in other locations and so on — have been around a long time. But they will become more common as technology sends more workers home.
That might mean rethinking some assumptions about how to manage remote staff.
For example, many managers have complained to me about the challenges of motivating their far-flung employees. A typical comment came from a senior executive who told me he feels as if he has two types of remote workers: lazy ones who do the bare minimum, and conscientious ones who do too much — or do the wrong things. But unlike other bosses who have tried to solve this problem by calling people back to the office, he has lighted a fire under the slowpokes by prodding them with a lot of short-term goals. And he now makes sure his sprinters are running in the right direction — lest they end up halfway down the wrong football field before he notices.
More fundamentally, managers could go back to the mid-century research of Frederick Herzberg and find that the same aspects that motivated employees in the pre-internet era probably still work today: achievement, recognition, interesting work and responsibility.
Or consider mentoring. One of the challenges facing remote workers, confirm Barrero, Bloom and Davis, is that they do not have the same chances to learn as in-person staff members. A lot of on-the-job learning happens informally by overhearing colleagues working on the same types of problems. Early in my career, I learned a lot from listening to my bosses on the phone, interviewing sources or giving feedback to authors.
But maybe eavesdropping is not the best way to learn — or to teach. Maybe more knowledge can be transmitted when we are intentional about doing so: taking the time to include junior colleagues on a call, walking them through the goals and debriefing afterward.
Loneliness might be a tougher problem to solve. Studies have long suggested that it is important to have friends at work. It is good for morale and engagement. And those sorts of human connections are vital for a good life — indeed, they are the whole point, according to Marc Schulz, associate director of the decades-long Harvard Study of Adult Development.
It is hard to forge those ties remotely; sharing memes on Slack just is not the same as sitting next to someone every day. At well-heeled companies, firms can bring employees together periodically to renew those bonds. But a remote-work future may well be a more isolated one.
That should be a reminder that although remote and hybrid work may have a lot of upsides, they will not be unalloyed goods. And in that way, the changing nature of work is not so different from the other changes the internet has brought to our lives — the improvements always accompanied by new problems.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.