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The pros and cons of working remotely

April 17, 2021, 5:00 PM UTC
Companies currently designing hybrid workplace models need to weigh the pros and cons of remote work.
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A great debate is raging in organizations over whether employees will return to their offices or continue to work remotely once COVID-19 is under control and most people are vaccinated.

Gartner’s recent survey finds that about 70% of employees wish to continue some form of remote work. Twitter and Facebook have already given their employees permission to work remotely on a permanent basis. On the other hand, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon calls remote work an “aberration,” urging employees to return to the office to collaborate on ideas.

My Harvard Business School colleague Tsedal Neeley has written a timely, well-researched book called Remote Work Revolution that demonstrates how to make remote work most effective, taking on issues like building trust, productivity, working in agile teams, and leading virtually. Neeley found from her research that “when people have the opportunity to work virtually and the flexibility to arrange job tasks, there is an increase in commitment to their companies and in performance, and a decreased likelihood for attrition.”

Let’s examine some of the pros and cons of remote work. Among the benefits:

Time savings

Without the need for long commutes to work and travel to other cities and countries, people find that they have a lot more time for their work and their families. This “found time” can be used to get more work done or spend more time with family, exercising, or relaxing.

Productivity

Many people—and their companies—were surprised to find they were more productive when working in remote settings. The absence of time wasted in commuting and travel is an obvious benefit, but they also found they were more focused when working without all the typical office distractions.

Schedule flexibility

Remote workers find they can both attend scheduled meetings and preserve quiet time to get solo work completed, giving them more flexibility in their schedules. This has also contributed to increased attendance, since meetings do not have to work around travel plans and commuting schedules.

Balancing family needs

Although some people complain about the challenges of working with children in their homes, the reality is that most people are more easily able to balance their work and family requirements when they have the flexibility to work from home.

Cost savings

Remote work provides clear cost savings for both employers and employees. Employers have dramatically reduced the cost of business travel, while employees avoid commuting costs. Many companies like Target are shedding expensive downtown office space by shifting employees to the new concept of “hoteling,” in which employees do not have permanent offices and book an available open office.

Organization design

While many companies have been moving away from hierarchical organizations, remote work further encourages horizontal interactions with increased equality. In a Zoom meeting, there is no privilege on seating order or physical presence, as everyone’s screen is the same size.

Yet for all these significant benefits, there are several negatives of remote work that both employees and their organizations are coping with.

Trust

There are obvious benefits to in-person communication. Neeley confronts this issue head-on with suggestions for establishing trust remotely. She explains, “Unlike in person, where the ideal time you spend with your coworkers inevitably leads to serendipitous discoveries about one another, in the remote format you have to make a point of sharing your personal side.”

Collaboration

How can organizations replace the collaboration that happens when people work together in the office? New tools, such virtual whiteboards, as well as new meeting formats, such as idea jams, can set the stage for recapturing creative collaboration. 

Informal interactions

Many leaders depend on the informal, spontaneous interactions that occur from “managing by wandering around.” Executives claim they learn more about what is going on through these impromptu interactions than they do in formal meetings, but such informal dealings are hard to replicate remotely.

Being with customers

There is nothing quite like meeting with your customers in their place of business, especially in retail settings, to build relationships and make use of all your senses. Even for remote employees, some in-person visits and meetings to build initial relationships can foster insight that can then be followed up with remote interactions.

Concerns over these negatives are stimulating organizations to create hybrid models. Yet designing a fully functioning hybrid model is complicated. Remote workers may perceive that there is an “in-crowd” (in-person) and that they are in the “out-crowd” (online). It can also create anxiety over fear of missing out. To these concerns, Neeley argues, “Let us never mistake physical proximity with psychological closeness. That’s a fallacy.”

The nature and needs of both employees and the business will shape upcoming decisions about remote work. I expect that various forms of hybrid environments—with some employees in the office and others operating remotely—will become the new norm. After a period of experimentation, companies will decide what format works best for their cultures and establish clear ground rules for their organizations. 

CEOs who adapt rapidly by creating their ideal environment will build stronger companies and wind up with stronger, more committed talent.

Bill George is a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chair and CEO of Medtronic. He is the author of Discover Your True North.