While the era of the 9-to-5, five-day work week was fraying before the COVID-19 pandemic, many believed that the era of face-to-face workplaces was put to an end by the discovery that we could operate many enterprises by Zoom. It looks like the death of the office was announced prematurely. According to a Labor Department report summarized by Gwynn Guilford in the Wall Street Journal:
“Working remotely is becoming increasingly rare a few years after the pandemic caused millions of Americans to decamp from worksites to their basements and bedrooms. Some 72.5% of business establishments said their employees teleworked rarely or not at all last year, according to a Labor Department report released this week. That figure climbed from 60.1% in 2021. The survey showed about 21 million more workers on-site full time in 2022, compared with the prior year… The share of business establishments with hybrid arrangements, where employees split time between home and worksites, decreased in all measured industries in 2022 from 2021, declining 13.4 percentage points across the private sector, according to the Labor Department.”
There are some businesses, such as those classified by the Labor Department as “information” businesses—technology, media, and communications firms—where a majority continue to include hybrid or fully remote operations. In contrast, finance and banking seemed to have returned more completely to face-to-face operations.
Looking at remote work from the perspective of management, one can see advantages and disadvantages, and I believe that organizations will continue to search for the balance of live and remote work that best fits their operation. If a person’s work is largely solitary with little interaction with co-workers, it doesn’t really matter where that work takes place. But most work involves engagement with co-workers and customers/clients, and place may well matter. Informal and spontaneous interaction by the elevator or coffee pot is not possible with remote work. A two-minute conversation is sometimes replaced by a 15- or 30-minute “meeting.” The body language of a three-dimensional interaction cannot be replaced by communication through a computer screen. Many managers find creative problem-solving and communication simply work better when people are in the same room. Business travel is increasing because there is no substitute for breaking bread when trying to build trust and close a deal.
On the other side of the equation, remote work saves hours of commuting time and the costs of commuting. It provides flexibility to enable workers to take care of household responsibilities, such as child and elder care, while also performing the tasks required for work. I am less persuaded by the “environmental” benefits of remote work since climate control and lighting 50 at-home workspaces instead of a single workspace with 50 people will certainly use up any energy savings gained by not commuting. The time savings of telecommuting can be quite significant and could increase worker productivity, although managers feel that home responsibilities often reduce worker focus on the tasks at hand.
The technology offered by companies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Webex continues to improve, and people are becoming more familiar with how to work with these technologies. The creative adaptations that staff will develop to enhance remote work are impossible to predict, but will certainly arrive. People are already better at using these tools than they were before the pandemic. Even in face-to-face operations, Zoom calls often replace phone calls and can facilitate meetings that would otherwise be difficult to schedule. In offices where workers largely work in person, staff that need to deal with personal emergencies or medical appointments often work a few hours remotely on days that, in the past, they would have simply taken off.
One of the disadvantages of remote work is the difficulty of separating work from home. The internet and smartphone already ensured that work could follow you wherever you went, but when it came into your home, there was no confusion: work was in a place it didn’t really belong. When your main workplace became your dining room table or for some, a home office, you no longer had a sanctuary where work was not supposed to intrude.
I believe that we are heading into a period where a wide variety of workplace requirements by management, and worker preferences, will lead to flexibility and frequent change in work venues. Increased traffic congestion both discourages commuting but also stimulates efforts to locate work and home in closer proximity. Reductions in the need for office space in some cities could stimulate the conversion of office buildings to homes. This is not a new story. In New York City, some of the lofts of SoHo and TriBeCa that once housed factories have been converted to luxury homes. But another impact of longer commutes can be a preference for remote work. Where workers are highly skilled and in great demand, they often have the bargaining power to insist on remote or hybrid work. Remote work can enable someone to live in a place where housing is less expensive or the quality of schools and access to nature is better than near their brick-and-mortar workplace.
In all this discussion of remote work, a distinct disadvantage is at the societal level, where it may reinforce income and social inequality. Some forms of work, such as medical care and similar personal services, require a physical location but are high-paid and high-status occupations. However, most workers who cannot work remotely work in hospitality, delivery, warehouses, repair shops, retail shops, transportation, and similar types of occupations that do not always pay well and are often not considered high-status professions. During the pandemic, these folks were heroes, risking their health to enable the rest of us to work remotely. A definite “con” of remote work is that some people are prevented from working remotely due to the place-based nature of their jobs.
I personally have the advantage of living two blocks from my office. The choice of remote and face-to-face work was not difficult for me. During the pandemic, as soon as we were allowed to return to the office, I did so. But many of my colleagues have long commutes and prefer the flexibility of hybrid work. Many organizations have begun to identify days of the week when staff must be in the office and other days when they have a choice of work venues. This enables consolidating meeting schedules and opportunities for personal engagement, leaving other days for tasks that might benefit from fewer interruptions and a less frenetic environment.
The issue of remote work is one of many issues that stem from the impact of technology on our daily lives and the culture of our society. We have been adjusting to new technologies for centuries, but the pace of change is accelerating and shows no sign of letting up. The technology of the internet, motorized transportation, increased congestion, and our service-dominated GDP has brought the issue of remote work to the forefront. We are adjusting our home and work lives to this new development. Along the way, we discovered there is something about live human interaction that we value and can be monetized in organizational productivity. Again, this technology-induced change is nothing new. For example, the development of search engines reduced the value and importance of fact memorization. That, in turn, changed the nature of education and learning. The development of AI and applications such as ChatGPT will be as significant as the development of the Web and search engines. I note this because it is characteristic of human behavior that we internalize the use of these tools, adapt, and find ways to creatively build with the tools we are given and learn to use. All of these technologies bring costs and benefits, and we shouldn’t panic about them but embrace them and learn how to integrate them into our work and home lives. Remote work is now a fact of life. Management and workers now need to consider this when they assess organizational needs and work-life balance.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.