The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend toward remote work, as many organizations had to shift to remote work arrangements to comply with social distancing guidelines to keep employees safe. Now that the pandemic has ended, companies are trying to bring employees back to their offices through a hybrid model and facing quite a bit of backlash. While remote work offers several benefits, such as increased flexibility and reduced commute times, it also has its drawbacks, such as reduced social interaction and difficulty with work-life balance. But this is not to say that returning to work in some form of hybrid model is the ideal catch-all solution.
What appears to be happening is that organizations are attempting to return their employees to the office as their CEOs and executive teams are arguing that it is “more productive” or “needed for them to grow.” It also seems that this push to hybrid is more beneficial to companies for investment reasons and to respond to mayors’ requests. On top of this, moving back to a more in-person work model would allow companies to maintain their current processes and strategies on how to manage their workforce, which is more suited to managing an in-person employee. This is signaling that they are perhaps unwilling to rewrite their manuals as suggested by experts or would rather do so on their own terms. Also, companies conduct “performance evaluations” for remote work, they reportedly aren’t complete, for example only considering specific departments or certain pieces of an employee’s lifecycle, but concerningly applying the findings with broad strokes to all aspects of an employee’s potential performance outcomes to determine that some level of in-person work on a consistent basis for employees is “better.”
However, if we take a step back and take a more academic approach to this issue, what does more than a decade of research on remote work tell us?
Numerous studies have been conducted to better understand the positive and negative effects of remote work. A meta-analysis by Gajendran and Harrison (2007) found that telecommuting has a positive effect on employee job satisfaction, while Bailey and Kurland (2002) found that teleworkers tend to experience greater autonomy and control over their work. However, some studies have also found negative effects of remote work, such as increased feelings of isolation and difficulty with collaboration (Cramton & Hinds, 2005; Olson-Buchanan & Boswell, 2006).
While this may seem confusing, this conflict of findings only shows that there are some aspects that thrive in a remote environment, while others might need some additional support or unique solutions. For example, a recent opinion study by Citrix found that the right technology will ensure team cohesion and equalize performance between employees working in a remote or hybrid environment. Another recent survey by Gallup showed that simply switching everyone to a hybrid model can elicit feelings of mistrust between the employee and the organization. A more nuanced, well-researched approach is needed to resolve these issues in each organization.
The goal of this article is to serve as a more rigorous source/review of research information about remote work. We’ll first look at what current research says about the positives and negatives of remote work, followed by the types of work that have been observed to work well or not so well. Finally, we’ll round it out with what research is indicating will happen to remote work moving forward, as well as some key information on how to use the information presented in this article and involve your employees in the process.
What the research says: Positives and Negatives of Remote Work
The foremost advantage of remote work lies in its flexibility as employees can operate from any location, easing commuting concerns and enhancing their overall equilibrium between professional and personal responsibilities. Furthermore, working remotely can result in heightened productivity due to better time management skills that allow them considerable autonomy over scheduling (Allen et al., 2015). It also bears mentioning how this flexible arrangement aids environmental causes by minimizing carbon emissions resulting from commuting (Hammer et al., 2019).
However, remote work can also have negative effects on employees’ well-being. Research has shown that remote workers may experience increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, which can lead to decreased job satisfaction and productivity (Golden, 2007). Additionally, remote workers may find it difficult to establish boundaries between work and personal life, leading to increased stress and burnout (Bakker et al., 2020). Moreover, remote workers may face difficulties with technological issues and face-to-face communication, which may require a learning curve (Dabbagh, 2019). The good news is that a lot of these negative effects can be remedied with the appropriate technology education, as well as practices such as dedicated meetups or “in days” focused on socialization and team building.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that remote work isn’t a solution for every employee. The effectiveness of remote work is highly dependent on individual and organizational factors. For example, some individuals may thrive in a remote work environment, while others may struggle with the lack of structure and social interaction. Therefore, organizations must provide adequate resources and support for remote workers, such as technology and communication tools, to ensure their success (Peters et al., 2004). Moreover, remote work requires effective communication, trust, and collaboration among team members, and this can be achieved through regular communication and training (Foss et al., 2011).
What the research says: Types of work suited for remote work vs work that is not currently suited for remote work
Investigations have also been carried out on the kinds of tasks that are most appropriate for remote employment arrangements. Furst and colleagues (1999, 2003) determined that certain virtual teams function optimally when engaging in cognitively demanding work, such as research endeavors and development projects; meanwhile, routine activities like inputting data might be able to be done within a conventional office setting or remote setting, with overall productivity heavily dependent on how teams are being measured and evaluated. Furthermore, Golden et. al (2006) found evidence supporting how telecommuting can lessen conflicts between employees’ professional duties with familial obligations—this effect is especially pronounced for those who demonstrate high job involvement.
The outbreak of COVID-19 resulted in a distinctive circumstance where countless workers were obliged to work from home irrespective of their job tasks or personal inclinations. A relatively new set of published research articles (De Vincenzi et al. 2022, Galanti et al. 2021) revealed that remote work during the pandemic had an adverse impact on employee morale and welfare, underscoring the crucial need for adequate support systems and resources for those working remotely. Some other empirical studies have discovered positive implications associated with remote labor during this crisis period such as amplified job satisfaction levels alongside elevated productivity rates (Gupta et al., 2020; Kalyani et al., 2021).
A study by Vander Elst et al. (2017) and Yang et al. (2022) found that telecommuting is most beneficial for jobs that involve complex problem-solving, knowledge work, and creativity. On the other hand, jobs that require face-to-face interaction, physical presence, or direct teamwork are less suitable for remote work.
Stevens and Campion (1994) identified knowledge, skills, and abilities required for effective teamwork, which can help organizations determine which jobs are most suitable for remote work. They found that effective teamwork required individual expertise, knowledge sharing, coordination, communication, and interpersonal skills. Jobs that require frequent interaction, coordination, and communication between team members may not be as effective in a remote work setting.
Another factor that impacts the effectiveness of remote work is the level of autonomy and control employees have over their work. Moen et al. (2011) found that giving employees greater control over their work schedules and flexibility reduces turnover rates. Similarly, Lam et al. (2020) found that empowering leadership, which involves giving employees autonomy and control over their work, increases employee engagement.
What the research says: Looking into the future
With the growing popularity of remote work, there is a pressing need for deeper research to gain full comprehension of its impact on individuals, organizations, and societies. It’s crucial that people and companies thoughtfully assess both positive outcomes as well as negative aspects related to having employees work from afar. Necessary measures must be taken in order to guarantee successful integration such as providing sufficient resources and support for remote staff members and setting up transparent communication processes while promoting sound balance between professional responsibilities and personal lives.
It is crucial to consider the legal consequences of remote work, including but not limited to possible breaches in wage and hour regulations and workers’ compensation assertions, as well as concerns around safeguarding personal information (Rosenblum & Talmud, 2020). To ensure compliance with relevant laws and directives employers must be vigilant about their policies regarding employees working from home.
Moreover, remote work has the potential to change the nature of work and employment. Some researchers have predicted that remote work may lead to a shift toward a gig economy, where workers are hired on a project-by-project basis (Katz & Krueger, 2016). This could have significant implications for job security and benefits for workers.
Conclusion: Read through these sources, but don’t forget to hear from your employees
Overall, the research on remote work highlights the need for careful consideration and planning when implementing remote work arrangements. While remote work offers several benefits, it also has its drawbacks, and its effectiveness depends on individual and organizational factors.
The best remote work solution for your company isn’t what others are doing, and it isn’t even what all this research necessarily says; it is what your unique employees need.
It is crucial that you give your employees an opportunity to communicate to you what they need. Giving them a safe space to communicate what working arrangement will work best for them will keep them engaged, will keep them motivated, and will keep them loyal to your company. This is the strongest course of action you can take—not just on this topic but with any other issue you are currently facing in your organization.
All the research in the world cannot replace the voices of the current employees who are working diligently in your company. Therefore, conducting anonymous sessions such as those we conduct for our Assess360 partners here at Seramount will equip you with the final pieces of information you need to best serve your employee population.
If you are interested in learning more about how Assess360 can help you advance your talent strategy by using the voice of your employees as a guide, contact us by emailing [email protected].