Remote work has become a right for knowledge workers. The data says we should create more fully remote jobs

Employers are facing pushback as they try to get workers back to the office.
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Before COVID-19, “remote work” was represented by the cliché of digital nomads staring at their laptops on exotic beaches. However, the pandemic revealed that remote work is rarely that glamorous. Mostly, it’s working at a kitchen table in pajama bottoms and a business top. It’s working from the in-laws’ basement for three weeks on an extended holiday visit. Occasionally, yes, it’s working from an Airbnb in the mountains or on an extended summer vacation. 

Yet judging by recent commentary, business leaders are still worked up about remote work. It can’t just be work from another location–it’s too popular to be harmless. Even Malcom Gladwell, a writer known to work from his couch and coffee shops, said that working from home is not in our “best interest.” 

Everyone has opinions about remote work, myself included. Since joining my employer Topia in 2016, I have had the best of both worlds. Although I mainly work from our office in Tallinn, Estonia, my home base, I have worked remotely from Iceland, Norway, Finland, Italy, Nepal, the UK, and France. I credit remote work with my mental well-being and life balance (don’t judge until you’ve spent winter in Estonia).

Because I manage products for global talent mobility (business travel, relocations, distributed workforces, etc.), I speak frequently with CEOs and HR leaders who fear that remote work is a looming disaster. Their fears largely stem from false assumptions.

Assumption #1: Remote workers are unproductive

When lockdowns closed offices in the early days of the pandemic, many employers made their mistrust of remote work clear. Some implemented surveillance software that monitors employees through their communications, application usage, and webcams. More recently, Elon Musk told Tesla employees they can either work 40 hours per week from an office or “…pretend to work somewhere else.”  Data collected since the pandemic suggests that Musk has it wrong.

Stanford researcher Nick Bloom, who has studied “work from home” since 2004, finds that remote work translates into more time working. On average, of the 70 minutes saved by not commuting, employees spend 30 minutes on extra work. Other studies concur: Remote work either has no negative effect on productivity or slightly improves it.  

To be fair, people can be productive at something that isn’t important. Data from Qatalag and GitLab suggests that remote workers waste 67 minutes every day proving to colleagues that they are available and working (for example, by posting memes in Slack). But doesn’t that behavior say more about management and culture than remote work itself? If managers treat availability during arbitrary hours as more important than hitting meaningful KPIs, employees will fake 67 minutes of work for a good review no matter where they’re located.

Lest we forget, a 2016 survey found that during an average eight-hour day, U.K. office workers believe they did just under three hours of “actual” work. Whether done remotely or in person, a job is whatever management incentivizes employees to produce. 

Assumption #2: Remote work across borders is an unmanageable compliance mess

Companies often reject remote work policies based on risk. They fear that if employees are permitted to work from home, it’s a slippery slope. They’ll end up in French chalets and Italian villas, masking their location with Zoom backgrounds and VPNs. Inevitably, they’ll break immigration laws, create tax exposure, violate labor regulations, and establish legal entities in random countries.

Here’s the reality: Only a few workers can actually spend a month abroad or go full nomad. Family obligations, finances, health, and passports limit how freely someone can travel. For the sake of argument, though, let’s imagine a CEO announces on a whim, “Work from anywhere you want!” Should HR have a heart attack?

Let’s consider immigration risk first. My team at Topia has documented 69 countries where many people can work remotely without immigration sponsorship. 21 of these—including Brazil, Canada, France, and Thailand—do not consider temporary remote work to be “work” for the purposes of needing immigration work permits.  

In another 20 countries–such as Iceland, Germany, India, and New Zealand–it is understood that if your primary reason for visiting is not work, then you may work remotely (during an extended vacation, for instance). Come for the fjords, stay for the WiFi. Some 28 other countries (and counting) offer remote work visas to employees. Which country wouldn’t want affluent knowledge workers to come and spend money? The U.S. and Australia, apparently. 

So, about a third of the world’s countries welcome if not promote remote work. The U.S. is another story. If an employee lives in Denver, Colorado, and spends one month at an Airbnb elsewhere in Colorado, no problem. If that Colorado employee makes over $3,500 while working during a vacation anywhere in California, for any amount of time, they owe California income tax on that compensation. Their employer has a duty to withhold taxes accordingly. Every U.S. state has different rules about tax exposure—hence the complexity.

In surveys we conducted between 2020 and 2022, roughly a third of employees admitted to working remotely outside their home state or country, but only a third of those employees said they reported all those days to HR.

At the same time, 91% of employees said they are comfortable with having their location tracked down to the city level, which is all an employer needs to comply with tax and immigration laws worldwide. The message from employees to employers is simple: Do whatever you need for compliance, just don’t burden us with paperwork. 

So no, compliance is not a reason to reject remote work or work from anywhere. Employers can steer employees to the many locations that welcome remote workers and use technology to manage risks if they do arise. 

Assumption #3: Sooner or later, most people will return to the office full time

Some employers assume that remote work is a pandemic fad and want to see that tide turn. Even Google, a purveyor of software that makes remote work productive and easy, has called workers back to the office (without much success). So have Tesla, Twitter, Apple, Comcast, Shake Shack, and others. Sure, they can threaten workers who refuse to comply–but that is likely to backfire. 

Of the 125 million full-time jobs in America, 60 million can be done from home, according to Gallup. In other words, about half the jobs in an advanced economy are remote-friendly. Every survey I come across–from McKinseyGallupBuffer, and Owl Labs, among others–finds mass support for remote work. In Topia’s 2022 survey, 94% of knowledge employees agreed that they should be able to work from anywhere, so long as they get their work done.  

How serious are employees about this? In payroll platform ADP’s global survey of 32,000 workers, 64% said that they would consider looking for a new job if they were required to return to the office full time. CareerBuilder says that remote and flexible jobs listed on its platform received seven times more applications than in-office jobs.

Everyone has different motivations for wanting flexibility in where they work–but there might be a common thread. Going into the pandemic, Americans in particular were increasingly burnt out and overworked. By 2019, more than half of Americans weren’t using their vacation benefits and collectively left 768 million days unused (4.9 days per worker). Whether it was guilt or fear of using too many “unlimited” vacation days, people pretended to love the #hustle, as if the value of their lives could be measured in work hours.

Then came COVID-19. People faced daily, unavoidable reminders of their mortality. Locked down and no longer commuting, knowledge workers had more time and could choose how to spend it. Countless people picked up new hobbies and habits. People reengaged with loved ones (or disappeared into their screens). 

Then the realization hit: If I don’t need to be in the office, why do I need to be cooped up in this overpriced city apartment with my partner and two kids? The exodus to small cities, mountain towns, and beach resorts began. 

Words like “autonomy” and “flexibility” were no longer empty corporate propaganda. Employees were exercising both through their choice of location, hours of work, and lifestyles. No employer can take those away without pushback

Facing the data, it’s hard to bet against remote work. Remote work is not a fad, and not even a recession is likely to change that. 

Remote work might be a privilege reserved for computer workers. Still, privileges have a way of becoming entrenched. Workers will increasingly view flexibility as a basic labor right, alongside time off and health care. The 70-minute commute to be distracted in a noisy office will become harder and harder to justify. 

Eventually, a workday at the kitchen table, in the in-laws’ basement, or in the mountain Airbnb won’t be “remote work.” It’ll just be work. It has been all along. 

Chantel Rowe is the VP of product management at Topia.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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