The Positives and Negatives of Remote Working/Learning
Ongoing Shifts Bring Challenges, Spark Debates, and Introduce More Questions
Earlier this year, the world changed forever with the COVID-19 outbreak. Businesses and schools temporarily shut down, and many employees and students were suddenly forced into a remote setting with little (or no) advanced warning. In the months that followed, everyone was left to play catch up as the pandemic raged on. Businesses scrambled to ensure that their now-remote employees were equipped (and motivated) to work from home, teachers struggled to continue the education process, students grappled with distance learning, and working parents juggled remaining productive at their jobs with sharing more of the burden of educating and caring for their children—who were now under the same roof all day!
The end of the 2019/2020 school year brought some relief with the slower pace of summer and the hope that things would be cleared up by the fall, but anyone who has been following the news knows that there are now more questions than ever before. Will an effective vaccine for widespread use ever be developed? Is it even safe to return to school or work? Should states where COVID cases are increasing reverse their phased re-openings in the hopes of “re-flattening” the curve? What will school look like in the fall? Most people have settled into a normal-for-now routine that works for them, but the upcoming school year will undoubtedly bring a new set of challenges to working parents, teachers, businesses, and students alike. It’s enough to drive anyone nuts.
Even as the economy has started to reopen, subsequent spikes in COVID cases have caused some to wonder if locations will remain open for long. Although some employees who were suddenly forced into remote working without choice ultimately came to find that they really enjoyed it, others struggled with the adjustment. What’s the best option for businesses? Sure, some employees might like working from home, but is a remote workflow optimal for morale and productivity? Now that employees have had a taste of remote working, is it even worth asking non-essentials to return to the office? With so many questions swirling around and the start of a new school year just around the corner, now is the perfect time to consider the positives—and negatives—of remote working and distance learning.
Once we had time to recover from the initial shock of dealing with a global pandemic, some people found that they quite enjoyed the remote working process. Likewise, some students continued to flourish with distance learning. After a few weeks of stay-at-home orders, people were able to configure their home offices (or home classrooms) to their liking. Additionally, technology made it possible to collaborate and connect with others from a distance, and there was the added benefit of no commuting or preparation time—it was simply a matter of walking to one’s computer and starting the workday (even in pajamas or sweatpants)!
Even before the pandemic hit, remote working was already on the rise. Most employees appreciate the freedom to work at a location of their choosing (home, coffee shop, hotel, airport, etc.) with more flexible hours. There is also much to be said for escaping the monotony of the nine-to-five Monday-through-Friday office grind. For some employees, flexible work conditions are more appealing than vacations, pay raises, and even retirement plans. According to SmallBizGenius, businesses that permitted their employees to work remotely reported a 25% lower employee turnover rate than those that didn’t. Furthermore, people who work remotely at least once a month are 24% more likely to be happy and productive. Based on this research, remote working is a win-win situation for employees and businesses alike—employees enjoy more flexibility and an improved quality of life, and businesses enjoy the benefits of higher employee satisfaction and lower turnover.
Even as businesses are starting to reopen, some employees have come to appreciate the newfound freedom that remote working affords and would be reluctant to give it up. Many employees also believe that they are more productive at home because there are fewer office distractions. It’s also easy to save money on gas and food when you’re not driving into the office every day, stopping for coffee, and heading out for a sandwich at lunchtime. Although the economy has slowly started to reopen, most non-essential employees are currently traveling to the office less frequently than they once did. Until the pandemic subsides, this trend will likely continue as businesses and employees strive to stay healthy and minimize exposure. Whereas some people prefer this new level of flexibility, others are truly struggling with the adjustment—which brings us to the “dark side” of today’s virtual world.
COVID-19 prompted immediate action—meaning that businesses and employees were strong-armed into a remote working situation regardless of their unique situations or personal preferences. Granting employees the privilege to work remotely if they choose is one thing, but temporarily closing an office during a pandemic (and thereby forcing employees to work remotely) is entirely another. Meanwhile, school-age children were now stuck at home too, creating a logistical nightmare for many working parents. Although a new school year is right around the corner, all indications are that the coming fall semester will be unlike any other. Some schools are leaning toward a “hybrid” approach that combines distance and in-person learning, while others are considering an all-virtual approach. Of course, everyone knows that young children cannot be left alone at home—so unless they are able to secure childcare, many working parents will be forced to remain home, as well (even if they would rather return to their physical offices). And if the last three months of the 2019/2020 school year taught us anything, it’s that having children at home is not conducive to a productive work environment. So while working from home might have fewer office distractions, the pandemic has created some major distractions of its own—close and continued proximity to family members as well as an inevitable disruption to a predictable routine. This will be particularly true for families with children attending schools implementing a hybrid policy because they will then need to deal with the complications of alternate education locations and little consistency from one day to the next.
Even some non-parents are not completely sold on the shift to a remote workflow. Children or not, it can be quite difficult to “compartmentalize” your life if your workplace and your home base are one in the same. Some people like to keep their personal lives separate from their work lives, and this can be nearly impossible when your office is literally steps away from the dinner table, your television, and other members of your household. Without a clear-cut start and end time, there is always a greater temptation to respond to one more e-mail or get sucked into another fire drill that requires immediate attention. Physical space creates more of a barrier, and although this challenge can be overcome, it takes a great deal of discipline when there’s no “leaving the office for the day.”
With major corporations like Google and Twitter relaxing their in-person work requirements, remote working certainly seems to be the wave of the future. At the same time, however, it remains to be seen if this shift to virtual is sustainable or beneficial in the long term. According to a Twingate study of over 1,000 remote employees, remote employment during the pandemic has disrupted many employees’ work/life balance. Based on the results of the survey, 45% of employees reported attending more meetings during the pandemic than when working in the office, compared to 21% who attended fewer meetings. Furthermore, 40% had experienced mental exhaustion from video calls while working remotely.
Other issues include a lack of motivation, constant breaks in routine, and a feeling of isolation from the workplace culture. Video calls make it possible to see and hear another person, but some would argue that there’s no substitute for being in close physical proximity to co-workers. Body language can speak volumes, and people who thrive on social interactions will find that video calls lose a lot in translation. Granted, these pandemic times still necessitate face masks and social distancing, but hopefully these measures won’t be permanent. In time, it would be nice to see a return of the office banter and camaraderie that is impossible to replicate in a virtual setting.
The Bottom Line
With so many questions remaining unanswered and so much uncertainty about the future, it is anyone’s guess what the coming months will bring for our personal and professional lives. Although the pandemic will likely cause long-standing or even permanent changes to our everyday lives, it is important to remember that everyone has a different idea about what the ideal workplace looks like. Some employees thrive in a mostly or completely remote setting, whereas others crave the normalcy and predictability of a nine-to-five life. To succeed as workplaces of tomorrow, businesses will need to be nimble enough to accommodate all their employees’ preferences—bearing in mind that the same policies that will be viewed as benefits to some will likely be seen as detrimental to others. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to keeping your employees happy, so it’s important to remain as flexible and accommodating as possible as we move through the pandemic and beyond.