For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic was their first exposure to remote work. While people were working remotely long before the pandemic began, this was typically limited to certain fields or positions and out of reach for many. Over the last few years, remote work has gone from being a fairly niche practice to an everyday reality for millions. Many businesses transitioned to remote work simply to comply with social distancing measures, but over time it has become so popular that there has been resistance to going back to a physical workplace. In fact, research shows that more than 4 of 5 employees who have worked in hybrid models over the past 2 years want to retain them.
As the world continues to recover and move on from COVID-19, remote work remains a hot topic as organizations contemplate how to continue to address this transformative trend. Though some business leaders remain hesitant to make remote or hybrid work options a permanent part of their operations, others see an opportunity for innovation and productivity, eager to take the steps necessary to ensure remote work success. While the pandemic might be over, it is clear that remote work is here to stay, and for those willing to step up and provide the proper leadership and support, it offers ample opportunities to bolster productivity and employee engagement.

The Benefits of Remote Work

There are many varied benefits to embracing remote work. Some are obvious and well-documented such as  cost savings on office space. However, there are other more intangible benefits that are more interesting to discuss. If managed correctly, remote work offers increased productivity, improved work-life balance, new opportunities for connection and collaboration, and a positive impact on DEI efforts. It is here where going remote is most valuable to businesses going forward.
Productivity is the biggest subject of debate in the argument for remote work, as many traditional business leaders feel that working from home cannot match in-person work. Yet, several studies show that remote work can drive productivity: Owl Lab’s 2021 annual report on the state of remote work states that 90% of workers say they’re at the same productivity level or higher working from home compared to the office. Meanwhile, Future Forum’s 2022 report shows that workers who can work from home reported 4% higher productivity scores than fully in-office workers, while those who have full schedule flexibility report 29% higher productivity than workers without the ability to shift their schedule.
There are several reasons why remote supports  productivity: working remotely allows for greater flexibility, which encourages more creativity and autonomy. It also gives employees who aren’t adept at in-person communications a chance to shine, meaning more people have the opportunity to demonstrate their strengths. Remote workers also have greater control over their work-life balance. While some might argue that employers aren’t responsible for employees’ work-life balance, employers who neglect their worker’s needs are likely to encounter absenteeism and higher rates of turnover, along with diminished productivity over time. When workers are happy and lead well-balanced lives, they are more productive and more likely to stay with their job.

Understanding the Challenges

For all of its many benefits, there are a number of challenges that organizations must address if they want to fully commit to remote work arrangements. Though remote work can be great for productivity, if workers are placed under too much pressure to “prove” they are working, it can lead employees to engage in “productivity theater”, where people aim to look busy doing tasks that offer little actual value. This has been a persistent problem since the wider adoption of remote work began: in a recent Slack survey, workers said they spent a third of their time “performing” work to appeal to their bosses rather than actually working. This includes responding to work threads regularly and answering emails more quickly than necessary, even after hours.
There are also obvious downsides to working remotely: isolation and disconnection, reduced face-to-face communication, a lack of access to important materials, and the difficulties of separating personal and work responsibilities. These issues aren’t insurmountable: people can communicate and connect remotely and set boundaries between their work and personal life. However, it’s true that some people just fare better in an office environment.
While there are undeniable challenges that come with remote work, it’s worth noting that some of the common counterarguments against it are either untrue or exaggerated to some extent. For example, it is often argued that remote workers are more likely to burnout than in-office workers due to a lack of in-person communication and the perception that they have to be “on'' all of the time, but research shows that in-office workers doing the same tasks are more likely to burn out compared to workers who work some or full time remotely. The reality is that both remote and in-person work have their own unique stressors, so rather than fixate on which are more stressful, it is more valuable to identify how they differ and provide workers with the support they need to thrive, whether they’re working remotely or in-person.

Pivoting For Remote Work Success

An important step for an organization looking to pivot toward remote work is recognizing that the old ways of operating will not take them into the future. Being proficient at managing remote employees can be difficult, especially for managers who are used to evaluating everyone based on “desk time.” To successfully pivot to remote work, managers must be willing to recalibrate their approach and move away from micromanagement. Managers need to focus on outcomes rather than face time and be more intentional about communication.
Leaders also need to be ready to address the gaps that exist in the remote work environment. The lack of face-to-face communication means that managers must be more proactive in their mentorship, modeling effective communication practices, and implementing new communication tools to facilitate connection between remote team members. The key is setting clear expectations and goals, as this ensures that even if your team isn’t in the same place, they’re still on the same page.
If you want to ensure your organization is communicating and collaborating, give them opportunities to do so: set up virtual team-building activities and digital spaces to chat, conduct regular check-ins, and take the time to recognize members’ accomplishments. Critics often argue that remote work leads to isolation and hinders a company’s culture, but that’s only if you don’t take steps to adjust that culture to facilitate remote communication. When you recognize how remote work differs from the in-person experience and adapt accordingly, you position your company for greater productivity and financial success while granting contemporary workers the autonomy, meaning, and purpose they are seeking.