What have we learned about remote work?

We may…look back to the pandemic as a crucial inflection point in something more fundamental: Americans’ attitudes toward work. — Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

A Personal Story About Remote Work

My husband and I were both early members of the work-from-home (WFH) club.

After finishing our graduate degrees in New York, we moved to California so that I could start my first job at a health sciences university.

I had grown up in the Midwest and my husband had lived in New York City for most of his life, so southern California was a big change in terms of…well, pretty much everything. We loved it there, but it was the love one might feel as a tourist in an unfamiliar country. Like, “This is a really cool place; I’m just not sure it’s me.”

We were also missing the parents, grandparents, siblings we had left behind. Surrounded by sunny weather and warm friends, we nonetheless could not establish deep roots in our new home.

So, after a few years, we moved back to the Midwest to be closer to family. We revelled in the flame-colored fall days and sharp winter nights that smelled of woodsmoke and cellar apples. I emailed my Cali friends to rejoice over the first blizzard of the season — they thought I was nuts.

I’m sharing this story because of what happened next.

Rather than let me quit, the health sciences university I worked for hired me as an independent contractor’special projects coordinator. My husband also found remote work at a tech company one state away. We each had weekly meetings with colleagues, using what would now be considered primitive web conferencing tools. He was required to travel there once a quarter; I flew back to California once a year. Other than that, my husband and I commuted to our living room and worked side by side on our sofa, tapping away on our laptops, for a period of 4 years.

This all happened over a decade and a half ago.

It goes to show that, long before Covid-19, companies were starting to embrace remote work. This was for several reasons: expansion of the talent pool, some reduction in costs, and optimization of trends in technology and globalization.

A Current Perspective of Remote Work

There’s no question that the pandemic has accelerated the remote work trend. By the end of 2021, the ability to work remotely was the #1 reason why workers changed jobs during the Great Resignation.

Now that we are 2+ years into the post-pandemic explosion of virtual work…what have we learned? Has this been a good thing, a bad thing, or a mixed bag?

In their book, Leading at a Distance, James Citrin and Darleen DeRosa describe the results of data surveys they conducted in partnership with Kincentric.

Here are some highlights:

Remote work has been positive for most individuals.

52% reported that remote work was a net positive for them personally. This outstripped those who thought it was a net negative (19%) or who were neutral (29%).

Remote work has been positive for most organizations.

42% reported that remote work was a net positive for their organizations. Again, this outstripped those who felt it was a net negative (21%) or neutral (37%).

Remote work has positively impacted some work processes but negatively impacted others.

It doesn’t take a data scientist to note the pretty slim margin — only 5% — between the “I think remote work has been good for our company” people (42%) vs. the “I’m staying neutral like Switzerland” people (37%). Why? Well, after running a worldwide, pandemic-induced experiment with remote work for a couple years, companies were bound to run into problems.

The Citrin/DeRosa/Kincentric data bears this out. Some work processes went well, but others not so much. Here are some of their findings:

What Has Gone Well in Remote Work:

What Has Suffered in Remote Work:

So, where do we go from here?

As of this writing (early 2022), many companies would like to get back to at least some in-person work. There are sound reasons for this, too — research studies like the one above show that remote work can be both good and bad for employees and companies.

Around the world, the lack of personal connection has been of particular concern. Steelcase collected data from 32,000 organizational leaders and workers in 10 countries during the pandemic. In all 10, feeling isolated was the biggest challenge. The study authors wrote, “Despite all the efficiency-based arguments for embracing a heavy work-from-home strategy, people are social animals and do not thrive when they feel alone.”

Still, if I were a betting woman, I’d say that remote work is here to stay. I agree with Derek Thompson from The Atlantic that the pandemic may well have created the “inflection point” to move remote work from the unorthodox and unconventional into the standard canon of business models. In order to enjoy its benefits, industry leaders will likely find workarounds to its problems.

It’s early days yet, but a hybrid model seems the most popular choice in the post-pandemic era. In the United States, 8 out of 10 CEOs have been offering more flexibility in terms of remote work, less travel, etc. Worldwide, 3 out of every 4 company leaders expect to use a hybrid work model in the future.

This brings me back full circle to my husband and me. As an executive coach, I currently work from home, but I’m starting to see on-site training events and conferences on my calendar again. My husband (who gallantly let me take over our home office while he worked at our kitchen table for the past two years) will soon start a hybrid work schedule at his workplace and commute to the office a couple days a week.

Given that many will continue to work — at least in part — from home, it makes sense to review some best practices for optimizing success in the virtual work world. We will do that in part 2 of this series.

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

Originally published at https://litvakexecutivesolutions.com on April 1, 2022.

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Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker & trainer, and certified executive coach. Find her at: https://litvakexecutivesolutions.com.

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Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker & trainer, and certified executive coach. Find her at: https://litvakexecutivesolutions.com.

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