“2021 was the year the world stayed remote,” according to the “State of Remote Work 2021” survey, which revealed that nearly 70 percent of full-time workers in the United States worked remotely at some time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Productivity did not suffer, as 90 percent of those surveyed said they were as productive working remotely as working in their office.
For the fifth annual edition of the survey, collaborative tech company Owl Labs and remote work analytics firm Global Workplace Analytics surveyed more than 2,000 full-time workers in the U.S. to offer a “look at how U.S. employees feel about remote and hybrid work, how their behaviors have evolved since the pandemic, and how employers are adjusting to new hybrid expectations.”
The survey found that remote workers can be “highly productive and possibly over-worked.” Since 55 percent of these workers said they spent more hours working remotely than at their physical office, employers are creating policies to support them better. Of those working from home during the pandemic, 70 percent found virtual meetings less stressful, and 64 percent now prefer virtual meetings.
Benefits of Remote Work
“For many, transitioning to remote work started with setting up a dedicated workspace, learning new virtual collaboration tools, and adapting to new ways of engaging with colleagues and clients virtually. But that was all temporary, right? Not so much,” the survey explained. Remote workers are evaluating what their return to the office will look like, and many of them are asking if they should return at all.
The survey found that only one percent of employees that worked from home during the pandemic said they were less productive. At the same time, managers were still somewhat skeptical of remote work. For those people who manage remote workers and teams, the survey revealed that 36 percent were concerned about employee productivity and 36 percent were worried about reduced focus.
While it is clear that employees are seeing and feeling the benefits of remote work, there are also drawbacks such as long hours, increased stress, and burnout. Even though employees are working significantly more, the survey found that only 11 percent of managers were concerned about employee burnout. Managers and employees must work together to overcome these challenges.
“Employee expectations and behaviors during the pandemic have permanently shifted,” the survey found. Employers who have not yet adjusted and created new workplace policies concerning remote and hybrid work probably should do so since 84 percent of employees shared that working remotely after the pandemic would make them happier, with many of them even willing to take a pay cut.
Many former remote workers have returned to the office, but to mixed reviews. The survey revealed that one in four of these workers had already changed jobs or were actively seeking a new opportunity for a variety of reasons that included a better career opportunity, better work and life balance, better compensation, less stress, more flexibility in where they work, and more flexibility when they work.
“After the pandemic, employees made their new work expectations loud and clear,” the survey noted. One in three workers said they would quit their job if they could not work remotely after the pandemic. In addition, 71 percent of employees wanted a hybrid or remote working style after the pandemic. In comparison, only 29 percent viewed being in the office full-time post-pandemic as a preferred working arrangement.
“Employee engagement has always been at the forefront of the minds of companies of all sizes and all industries for a simple reason: engaged employees produce better work,” the survey found. Nearly half – 49 percent – of managers overseeing remote workers were concerned about employee engagement. Meanwhile, employees were interested in flexible office policies such as 10-hour/4-day work weeks.
What happens if employees are not engaged? The simple answer is that they look to leave their job. The survey revealed that one in four workers had changed jobs or actively sought a new opportunity during the pandemic. As a result, many companies are looking beyond today to build more progressive workplace policies to help employees thrive and remain engaged in their work.
Some companies allowed employees to work from home to avoid having them leave their jobs but with salary adjustments to help the company’s bottom line. However, 81 percent of employees said they should be compensated the same whether they work in-office or remotely. Bottom line: employers must rethink their workplace culture to be more inclusive of both remote and hybrid work.
Returning to the Office
“Those who worked from home during the pandemic have now experienced the challenges and benefits of remote work firsthand. Because of this, the question becomes: do employees’ new expectations align with what employers are planning to offer post-pandemic?” As companies reopen, the survey suggested that employers evaluate how their current workplace policies and practices impact their employees.
Of the responding employees who worked remotely during the pandemic and have returned to the office in some capacity, more than half—57 percent—say they preferred working from home full-time. In comparison, 42 percent say they felt stressed about the uncertainty around their employer’s in-office requirements. But they also said they feel trusted, valued and that their voice is being heard.
The survey also exposed a gap between the preferred working arrangements of employees versus what their employers require them to do, as 39 percent of employers required employees to be in the office full-time post-pandemic. Still, only 29 percent of employees want to be in the office. While hybrid work is what employees expect in the future, they do not want to dismiss the physical office entirely.
Rethinking the Office
“The time is now to rethink your physical office space. If it isn’t wired for hybrid collaboration, it’s wasted space,” the survey warned, and 38 percent of employees said their employer had upgraded video technology for more hybrid collaboration. Connectivity is critical for workers both in and out of the office, so employers should rewire offices so employees can do their work wherever they are located.
Hybrid work is not going anywhere as the global pandemic has transformed how employees work and fast-tracked them to the future. Significant shifts have occurred in the past year and a half, such as “Zoom” becoming a word to describe meetings. “However, there is one notable change that sticks out above the rest: employees now expect flexibility in not only where they work, but when,” the survey stated.
Nearly one in two people—48 percent— said they would start looking for another job that offered more flexibility if they could no longer work remotely. In the U.S., 81 percent of people who worked from home during the pandemic said they wanted a hybrid or remote working style once the pandemic was over. In other words, flexibility is now essential for workplace success.
“The pandemic has proven that anything can happen to disrupt our personal lives and businesses without notice,” the survey concluded while also noting that both employers and employees have “learned a few things in the past two years.” Learning from this period of changing employee work habits, expectations, and engagement can help companies set themselves up for future success.
“We’ve had a forced try because of the pandemic, but now is the time to be proactive and strategic with our business decisions and priorities. Implement the right strategies, tools, products, processes, and expectations to navigate any future disruptions,” the survey suggested. Remote and hybrid work have become more accepted, and employers would be wise to adapt to this new working method.
“Successful companies are the ones thinking about long-term strategy rather than ‘let’s just survive this crisis.’ The reality is, most businesses were forced to go remote and are now hybrid. We all need to work together to create a new way of working that is productive for businesses and employees alike.” The “State of Remote Work 2021” survey is available at https://owllabs.com/state-of-remote-work/2021.