What COVID-19 Exposed About Remote Work

As the ability to work completely online has become more and more accessible, remote work advocates have been asking workers and employers to consider these questions for the better part of this century.

Per a 2019 survey, 81% of employees who work on-site said that the ability to work remotely would make them happier, and in a separate survey, 62% of US office workers said that they believed they could do their jobs at home at least a few days per week if given the opportunity.

Companies that have already moved their teams to remote work have seen numerous benefits, from massive cost-savings to increased productivity and employee retention. However, despite these benefits and an overall increase in remote work acceptance, most companies have remained resistant, particularly those rooted in more traditional industries and corporate environments.

But now, office workers and employers everywhere are finally facing the truth about remote work— just not in a way we could have anticipated.

As of March 2020, employees around the world have been mandated to switch to full-time remote work in wake of the COVID-19 crisis. As a remote worker of five years and a remote work advocate, I wondered what stumbling blocks or limitations workers and organizations would be encountering. I assumed that this transition might initially be challenging for those outside the tech sector or those working from home for the first time.

However, as Carla, a book publicist in New York, explained to me, “All the work we do is online anyway, so transitioning wasn’t difficult at all… [management] was just like, guys, we’re working from home now!”

This response was consistent across the dozens of people I interviewed for this article. Jeremy, a customer account manager in New Jersey, shared that his company’s projects and business operations had not been impacted at all, even though the company management “hasn’t really given any additional resources or support” during the transition.

“It’s business as usual,” he explains, “except all in-person meetings have been changed to conference calls.”

As Carla says, “[Our team] already meets via Google Hangouts… There is a level of human interaction my job requires, but I could definitely do 85% of my job from home.” When asked why she hasn’t been offered more opportunities for remote work previously, especially as a young mom, she simply states, “This has exposed so many cracks in the system.”

For Ali, a care coordinator at a community behavioral health center in Massachusettes, the ease of the transition to working from home has been both a blessing and an insult.

“For years we’ve been told that these jobs couldn’t be done remotely, yet many of us were able to transition over seamlessly and are still running profitable programs. They laughed in my face when I [previously] asked for accommodations to work at home one day a week to relieve the symptoms of my chronic physical and mental illnesses. But now that able-bodied people are being affected, it’s feasible?”

As for the benefits of working from home, “Being able to work in bed if I’m in pain is a dream,” Ali explains. “It also gives me more free time, because I can do little chores throughout the day rather than having to spend all of my time off cleaning. I’m also saving money on gas. Little things like that have really made a difference.”

For employers, the hesitation to accept remote work has previously come down to an antiquated understanding of what it means to work, combined with a general lack of trust in employees. But according to Heather McGowan, a prominent future of work strategist, COVID-19 is forcing them to confront these outdated mindsets.

“Bosses are learning that out of sight does not mean out of mind,” she writes. “Colleagues talk [to each other], in many cases, even more, and more effectively. And with no other alternatives, managers are trusting their people to do the right thing.”

McGowan also brings up important moral issues tied to remote work, such as environmental impact and income inequality.

If there has been one positive thing to come from the ongoing tragedy that is COVID-19, it’s a decrease in air pollution globally. Many of us have seen the viral images of how the decrease in traffic has transformed the Los Angeles skyline within just a few weeks, with incredible reports in early April that the city notorious for smog was enjoying the cleanest air of any major city in the world.

Los Angeles, CA before and after the shelter-in-place mandate (source)

Although these dramatic changes have been happening during a city-wide shutdown, it’s undeniable that a reduction in traffic along with a redistribution of workers outside our major cities could transform our environment. Remote work presents a commonsense way to reduce the strain on our cities and our planet and could help maintain this environmental progress as the world “reopens.”

As we head toward a possible economic recession or depression, another issue at the forefront of our minds is that of income inequality. Remote work options can play a significant role in uplifting lower-wage office workers and reducing this gap.

On average, American workers have been spending $1,500 annually simply commuting to and from work, which represents 5% of the salary of an employee earning $30,000/yr. Other expenses associated with an over-packed schedule, such as eating out for lunch, have cost workers an additional $2,000 each year. Minimizing these office-related personal expenses would amount to a meaningful pay raise for many workers, not to mention the massive savings if workers could move to less expensive areas outside the big cities where major companies are based. Additionally, if companies are spending less to accommodate on-site workers, some will be able to free up capital for hiring or simply for keeping employees on their payrolls during tough economic times.

With the COVID-19 crisis showing us the benefits of remote work and proving that office jobs can be done remotely, at least part of the time, we as a culture are going to face a moment of reckoning when the time comes to go back to the office. We must ask, resoundingly, why flexibility for office workers isn’t seen as a fundamental worker’s right.

When an employer forces an office worker to be on-site from 9 to 5, five days a week, they are doing more than just demonstrating a lack of trust in their employees. They are cutting into their employee’s earnings, disadvantaging those with physical and mental illnesses, and taking away time that could be used to address our innate human needs for self-care, family care, and greater fulfillment. These rigid work structures serve ultimately to dehumanize those who can do their jobs just as well, if not better, from the comfort of their homes.