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Remote Work in the Future Endemic

March 23, 2022

By Kevin Marrs, originally featured in our FOCUS Magazine

We’re still waiting for the moment when we feel confident enough to say the worst of COVID is behind us and it’s downgraded to an endemic. When that happens, we will take stock of the pandemic’s legacy on the workplace. A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research makes the case that remote work will be one of those enduring artifacts from the pandemic.

The authors of the paper suggest that 20 percent of full workdays will be supplied from home after the pandemic ends. That may not seem like a lot (i.e., eight hours out of a 40-hour work week), but that number is compared to just five percent before the pandemic began.

The paper outlines five reasons why remote work will remain long past the pandemic. These reasons include:

The COVID-driven experiment altered views and plans about working from home for both the employer and the employee.
Consider the past three years as one long exposure therapy exercise. Leaders and managers alike (and some employees) were forced to face the anxiety of not being able to see employees in the physical work setting. The researchers refer to this technically as the “bias elimination effect.” This exposure altered the view of remote work and caused many to embrace it.

Pandemic-induced investments improved Work From Home (WFH) capabilities.
Millions of workers learned to use teleconferencing software and remote collaboration tools and dialed in their remote (home) offices to expand their WFH capabilities. This investment improved outcomes and the productivity of remote work. In fact, their research estimates that the aggregate pandemic-induced investments to enable WFH equaled 0.7 percent of the annual gross domestic product.

The stigma associated with WFH diminished during COVID.
Remote work is no longer a risky request for employees interested in asking for greater flexibility. According to the researchers, this makes it more likely that employers will offer greater opportunities for remote work going forward.

The fears of mingling and proximity to others will linger.
In their research, the authors of the paper noted that just 28 percent of people surveyed anticipate a “complete return to their pre-COVID activities.” It’s likely that for some time to come, employees will be wary of interactions with others considering their experience with COVID. As a result, some will still opt for remote work if given the opportunity.

Pandemic-induced innovations will improve remote interactivity.
This is akin to when Bob Dylan went electric, or when the Beach Boys experimented with new sounds on their album Pet Sounds. It spurred innovation in music. Technology companies are racing to create new applications to facilitate remote work, and that innovation—spurred on by the pandemic—will create greater opportunities (and acceptance) of remote work.

For certain, the days of remote work as a benefit of the privileged few is over. Remote work is here to stay. However, the final state of what remote work will look like remains to be seen. Greater analysis and experience are needed to determine how and when, and in what environments, remote work functions best. Guaranteed though, it’ll be an exciting ride.

Kevin Marrs is Vice President of ASE. For more than 15 years, Kevin Marrs has conducted research and analysis on the total rewards practices and trends of area employers. Kevin is also responsible for conducting employee surveys for ASE
member organizations.

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