Since the pandemic hit, people around the world have been taking part in a ‘Great Remote Work Experiment’. We’ve learned a lot, about things like productivity, communication and boundaries. We’ve proved we can do get our jobs done, something that has fueled global conversations about work structures once Covid-19 subsides.
Yet there’s one thing we keep forgetting. We weren’t just working from home – we were working from home during a pandemic. The experiment began almost overnight, with minimal preparation or support. We worked at our kitchen tables, sometimes watching our children, as we sheltered from a virus. Everyone was in the same boat, working remotely without choice.
That means that although we did work from home, our experiences were shaped within a very specific, unique and communal set of circumstances. When the world re-opens, these circumstances will change – meaning that remote work may feel rather different. Some experts suggest we need to reflect on which parts of our ‘experiment’ may have been unrepresentative of long-term remote work in a pandemic-free society. Others suggest that our pandemic ‘experiment’ taught us more about remote work than we could ever have imagined, and propelled work-from-home into the mainstream in a vastly accelerated manner.
Both good and bad effects have come from the great work-from-home experiment occurring during a global medical emergency. Experts say pinpointing these could better inform our future work practices.
Why the pandemic isn’t the best guide
On one hand, we crash-landed into remote work because of the pandemic. This could mean we’re not best placed to judge how well or poorly it works under ‘normal’ circumstances.
“There was this enormous uncertainty – the stress that we all felt of ‘what’s going to happen to society?’,” says Martha Maznevski, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario. The last 18 months have been tough for many of us; some have faced health-related anxiety, loneliness and boredom, while others have been juggling children and homeschooling with professional responsibilities. And all of us had to rapidly adjust to new ways of working.
Workstations, for example, weren’t necessarily standing desks in home offices; they were stacks of books on kitchen tables, or even our beds. Zoom made conversations – professional or personal – feel foreign and exhausting, but we couldn’t leave our homes for fear of contracting the virus. It’s fair to assume these factors will have shaped people’s ability to work, and their resultant view of remote work, in diverse ways – and some may never want to work away from the office again.
Not all of these ‘forced’ conditions were bad, however. Because knowledge workers went remote by necessity, regardless of company or industry, everyone was facing the same challenges, and people pulled together to find solutions. Yet this benefit may have been unique to the pandemic; once we return to a world in which people have different working situations, our ways of working will begin to diverge again, and integrating remote work may become more complicated.
“The all-remote was fine; now we’re getting into the mix [of remote and non-remote], and that takes a lot more thought,” says Anita Woolley, associate professor of organisational behaviour and theory at Carnegie Mellon University, US. Now, as some firms begin hybrid working, employees may soon realise that it’s going to be harder to pull off remote work when some people are at home while others are in the office, where it’s easier to build relationships, collaborate and even advance in the company.
Additionally, the working hours we put in while remote were linked to the fact that we were stuck at home. While there’s data to suggest that we were more productive during the pandemic, and that some companies were more productive than others, that could be due to people working longer hours each day, to the point of burnout. There were few leisure options available, plus we were worried about our jobs, which meant many people defaulted to working longer hours. We can’t necessarily conclude that widespread remote work makes people more productive, even if we do save time on things like daily commutes.
So, does that all mean that we’ve conditioned companies and workers to think of remote work in a certain way that isn’t necessarily indicative of the future? We’ve developed preferences about working from home that might be based on experiences that aren’t necessarily representative of what remote work is supposed to look like – we’re not going to be glued to Zoom during lockdowns forever, after all.
It could be that we’re in for a surprise – unpleasant or otherwise – when we experience remote work after the pandemic.
The all-remote was fine; now we’re getting into the mix [of remote and non-remote], and that takes a lot more thought - Anita Woolley
Don’t pull the alarm yet
Yet not all experts are concerned about whether our pandemic work-from-home experiences could distort our view of remote work. Some argue that the context in which we worked shouldn’t discount our experiment – if anything, it should help guide how we roll out long-term remote work policies going forward.
Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University in California, points to “three golden rules” that, pre-pandemic, were believed to be crucial for successful remote work. First, having a working space that wasn’t the same room as where you slept; second, having high-speed broadband; third, six or more months of experience on the job so that you knew what you were doing.
The pandemic proved all three were, in fact, not required – and if it weren’t for the unique nature of the pandemic, we never would have been able to figure that out, says Bloom. Now, moving forwards, we can look at the difficult remote-work conditions during the pandemic, and use what we’ve learned to improve our set-ups. Bloom says he thinks it’s “incredibly positive” that pandemic remote work has been “more successful than anyone ever predicted”.
He suggests that the forced remote-work experiment is like comparing two versions of a smartphone. Say you bought an original smartphone years ago, and thought it was convenient at the time, but then one day you buy the newest, shiniest model, and suddenly realised how much more convenient it is than the original. That’s what remote work after Covid-19 could be like – we’ll only be able to improve and iterate on what was surprisingly successful during the pandemic.
Bloom also believes that, without the unique pressure-cooker environment of the pandemic, there wouldn’t have been as many leaps in remote-work technological innovation. He and his colleagues point out in a 2021 working paper that the number of US patent applications for technologies supporting telework, video conferencing and working from home doubled between January and September 2020. Even “Zoom is a lot better now than a few months ago”, says Bloom.
Kevin Johnson, associate professor of management at HEC Montréal business school, says that the pandemic gave remote work a wave it wouldn’t have had otherwise. “We’ve got the momentum to use in the coming months, weeks, to try and build something more integrated in our management system and our leadership styles,” he says.
In the end, we can acknowledge both perspectives; that while working remotely during the pandemic distorted many people’s views of what long-term remote work would look like, the unusual ways the pandemic affected the telework experience can serve as learning points for the future.
It’s important to identify the pieces of the Great Remote Work Experiment that were unique to the pandemic. After all, we might be tempted to look at those elements, and assume that they’ll always be a part of remote work. That’s why we need to pay attention to the parts of the day-to-day that pan out better or worse than we think, and flag it with a manager early. Communication and flexibility will be key. Just because certain factors helped remote work spread more quickly than it would otherwise, doesn’t mean those factors will stick around forever.