Arguments Against Remote Work: Are They Valid?

Companies, Employers, Employment / 06 August 2020

While it’s true that a gradual shift towards home and remote working has been happening for some time, no one could have expected it to become the norm so fast. Such has been the case for many things during the pandemic. Coronavirus has affected so many aspects of our daily working and personal routines, and so quickly, that both employees and businesses are still trying to understand the short and long term effects.Often described as ‘the largest social experiment undertaken’, and other equally grandiose terms, remote work has been a must for many in recent months, and hailed as a success so far by both businesses and employees. Better productivity, saved costs, better work/life balance, and increased employee autonomy have been among the often-cited advantages.

Arguments Against Remote Work: Are They Valid?

Four months in, however, several arguments against working from home have started to circulate. These seem to suggest it may not be the panacea to work/life balance that we all previously thought.

Common negative impacts of WFH and remote work can include increased feelings of loneliness, worsening mental health, and a worse work/life balance. Some studies or articles also suggest that many workers want to get back to the office as soon as possible, due to missing the social interactions with colleagues.

It’s easy to attribute these negative impacts to remote work alone, but more often than not, one crucial factor is being overlooked – we are not assessing remote working in a normal set of conditions. In almost all cases where these issues are cited, for example, the fact that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic is often overlooked entirely.

It’s certainly true that working from home can lead to a blurring of work and home lines, as well as feelings of isolation, and these problems are only likely to be exasperated during the current crisis – but the latter point is the important one for employers to note. When assessing anything to do with work or employee health and happiness in the last few months, failing to factor in the huge amount of stress the pandemic is responsible for can only create misleading conclusions.

Financial worries, the inability to see friends and family, and the stress of living through the current crisis are major challenges that are affecting everyone, after all.

It’s equally important to consider that firms and employees already equipped for, and used to remote work, will probably have found the transition much less of a problem than other businesses. Conversely, using companies that may have never tried remote working before as an example of ‘why remote working is bad’ is not going to give an accurate picture.

Many of the key problem areas for remote work could be easily resolved in more normal times. Even more so, in fact, as most employers now have a clearer understanding of what support staff both need and want when they work off-site or at home.

We also shouldn’t overlook that in more stable circumstances, remote work is possible pretty much anywhere with an internet connection. In what now seems like a long-forgotten alternate reality, feelings of loneliness and isolation were much easier to combat, thanks to the abundance of cafes or public spaces available. Visting family or friends was always an option too, and no one was forcibly confined to their home working space indefinitely.

Meeting up with colleagues, even though a team may all work remotely, is also entirely plausible and possible in a post COVID world. There may be more onus on companies to provide the frameworks for this perhaps, but from these two examples alone we can see that the most often cited criticisms of WFH fade away in a ‘normal’ climate. Care needs to be taken then, in separating WFH issues from those caused by the wider societal situation.

The big question for employers during all this is of course, should employees be back in the office or not once this is all over?

Answering this question is only made more difficult by the ongoing comparisons between on-site and remote working. These comparisons often miss a crucial point however: Whether it’s working with colleagues in an office space, or remotely at home, the autonomy to choose is really what employees are asking for.

Businesses shouldn’t be forcing remote work on employees any more than they should be forcing employees into the office. What we need instead is a ‘new normal’ that accommodates preferences, delivers autonomy, and offers trust. Empowering employees to work in the ways they find most productive, rather than waging a war between remote and on-site work ideologies, is likely a much more effective answer to the question of what the post COVID world of work looks like.

Siemens’ recent announcement on the future of working for their company is an excellent example of this. CEO Roland Busch recently announced the thinking behind the company’s new working model, which will only require staff in the office two or three days per week:

‘The basis for this forward-looking working model is further development [of] our corporate culture. These changes will also be associated with a different leadership style, one that focuses on outcomes rather than on time spent at the office.

We trust our employees and empower them to shape their work themselves so that they can achieve the best possible results. With the new way of working, we’re motivating our employees while improving the company’s performance capabilities and sharpening Siemens’ profile as a flexible and attractive employer.’

In the end then, arguing against remote work at the moment seems counterproductive for two reasons:

1: We can’t accurately assess any potential downsides in the middle of a pandemic, the main response to which focuses on social distancing and isolation.

2: There is no ‘one size fits all ‘ approach – there never has been – and businesses don’t need to choose between ultimatums of back to the office for good, or remote work forever. Both can and should coexist as part of a single strategy.

One thing that both remote work supporters and office worker enthusiasts can probably agree on is being given a choice. Everyone, including the employer, wins in such a scenario.

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