May 27, 2020 - Economy

The downsides of remote work

Data: Reproduced from Prudential/Morning Consult "Pulse of the American Worker Survey"; Chart: Axios Visuals

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a large-scale experiment in working from home. It has gone well enough that many companies are expanding their remote work expectations for the foreseeable future, and remote employees want to continue to work that way.

Yes, but: The downsides of remote work — less casual interaction with colleagues, an over-reliance on Zoom, lack of in-person collaboration and longer hours — could over time diminish the short-term gains.

  • "The longer we remain fully remote, the more difficult it is going to be to mitigate a rate of decay in culture," said Rob Falzon, vice chair of Prudential and architect of Prudential’s Future of Work initiative. "That should be keeping leaders up at night."

By the numbers: A majority of U.S. remote workers (59%) report feeling as productive as they do in the office, according to a Morning Consult survey of full-time workers on behalf of Prudential.

  • 69% say working from home allows them to make more time for self-care, and 54% want to work remotely in the future.

The other side: About half also report feeling less connected to their company (55%), more stressed in ways that negatively impact their work (46%), and working more hours from home (47%).

  • Isolation, distractions and lack of boundaries between work and home life are taking a toll on workers.

How it works: "Our ability to work well remotely is fundamentally based on the fact that we already established strong relationships with our peers," said Falzon. "So when you get on the phone or a video conference with them, there's a history there that allows you to be very effective in your communication, to read body language, even virtually, and be productive."

  • Yes, but: Over time, that goodwill with colleagues can break down without social, offline interactions to reinforce the personal relationships. And new people hired during this period of all-remote work don't have the benefit of building those connections.

What's next: 66% of employees are wary of returning to their offices before they've been reconfigured for more personal space, and 50% want their employees to limit the number of in-person meetings once the pandemic is over, per the survey.

  • Similarly, a recent Kung Group survey of 500 venture-backed founders indicated that 71% of CEOs will let their employees continue to work from home after their offices reopen, and 66% of CEOs are considering letting go of or downsizing their offices.

Still, the need for a space to collaborate and socialize with colleagues will remain even if more people work remotely, said Jocelyn Kung, CEO of the Kung Group, an organizational development group that works with Silicon Valley companies.

  • "There is certainly efficiency with remote work, but there's also a loss," said Kung, referring to the lost conversations in hallways or between meetings.
  • "Office spaces will be less about going to work to work, but going to work to collaborate, socialize and be creative," she said. "We won't see a series of desks — we'll see collaboration spaces that are well-lit, well-ventilated and safe."

Go deeper: How the new workplace could leave parents behind

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