It’s been almost 15 months since the WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic, the US borders closed to much of the rest of the world, and around 42% of 157 million US workers (almost 66 million) switched to working remotely full-time.

While some experts argue that this has led to an unhealthy always-on culture and the rise of Zoom fatigue, we have learned a few very important lessons from remote working that we need to keep in mind as some of us choose to return to work in an office setting.

As a result of the flexible remote work policies that have remained for many post-pandemic, many workers are moving to more affordable parts of their metro areas. In the cities of New York and San Francisco specifically, they are leaving the city completely, ditching high living costs for more affordable locations. But it hasn’t been the only major change the remote work revolution has brought.

Even before the pandemic, achieving work-life balance had become the second most important factor for US workers in relation to choosing a company after compensation. And the blurred lines that a year of remote work (along with closed schools) brought have forced that further into focus. As Forbes shares, the increased acceptance of working from home may help our workforce to finally gain a better work-life balance.

It’s no doubt that a year of remote work has changed both our lifestyles and our priorities greatly. So, what have we learned from the advantages of remote working? And what impact will that have on our decision of whether we want to be working from home or the office?

A flexible remote work policy is a must for employers

An interesting trend emerged when younger generations entered the workforce – they weren’t afraid to prioritize work-life balance. But what is even more important is that older employees are just as likely to want flexible working — they are just less likely to ask for it, according to The New York Times

In a report by Harvard Business School, the vast majority of the 11,000 workers and 6,500 business leaders surveyed listed expectations for flexible, autonomous work, better work/life balance, and remote work as the development most urgently affecting their businesses. Only 30% cited that they were prepared for these. And according to The Times, 50% of employees would quit if denied a flexible remote work policy, so it’s a shift that employers will need to pay serious attention to.

Teams need the right tools working from home or the office

Leaning into a year of remote work made it blisteringly obvious that not all employees had access to the right software. According to a report by Deloitte, employees who worked in a culture that encouraged innovation and had access to collaboration tools were 34% happier than those who did not. And although a third had requested better collaboration tools, only a third of these received a positive response to the request. Interestingly, when employees used the tools they were familiar with at home in the office, they reported increased productivity, higher engagement, and improved morale. 

Lessons from Remote Working We Shouldn’t Forget 2
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Achieving work-life balance is more important than ever

When many employers initially feared that a move to working from home would lead to lower levels of productivity, study after study has found the opposite – employees get more done but only because they work longer hours. In fact, US workers are working on average three hours extra a day. The long-term result of this? Higher levels of burnout and decreased productivity. And in the short-term? Half of us (54%) are checking our devices more outside of work hours, feel more alone (24%), have gained weight (22%), and feel a decrease in our mental health (21%). The impact of these worrying trends from remote work has revealed that achieving a work-life balance is absolutely paramount for our health and happiness. It is vital that employers need to do what they can to encourage and promote this for their employees.

Remote working has proved not every meeting is necessary

Like it has done for achieving work-life balance, remote work has made it glaringly obvious that we need to use our time at work wisely. And often, that means clearing our calendar of unnecessary meetings. Recently, investment bank Citigroup announced a ‘Zoom-free’ Friday to ease the video call fatigue associated with our new ways of working. 

A large-scale study by Microsoft found that in about 30% of video meetings, employees interacted with their emails, while in 25% of meetings, they worked on other files such as documents. This was especially true for longer meetings and meetings held early in the day. Possibly the most important finding was that attendees of meetings that lasted 80 minutes or more were six times more likely to multi-task than those who were in meetings that lasted 20 minutes or less. Whether we are working from home or office, we need to be selective about how long our meetings need to be (or indeed, if the discussion requires a meeting at all). 

Employees need the choice of working from home or office

It will come as no surprise that sharing a workspace with your children, pets, or spouse (sometimes in very small spaces) is not for everyone. The Society for Human Resources Management reminds that some employees are uncomfortable with the isolation of remote work. They share the example of The New York Times’ newspaper unit who prefer working from the office as it is what they are used to. 

According to The Wall Street Journal, around 25% of work time will be from home (versus 5% pre-pandemic). Meanwhile, Forbes shares a lengthy list of employers that are offering indefinite remote work. The main takeaway is that employees will inevitably have different preferences – the most important thing is that they are given a choice.

We need to rethink how we use office space

As a result of this choice and the reality that fewer employees will be in the office, organizations will no doubt need to rethink how they use their office space. And let’s face it, it’s a massive expense for employers – it can cost up to $595 per square foot. Even pre-pandemic, it’s estimated that around 30-40% of desks were typically unoccupied anyway

A study by WeWork found that post-COVID, most employees will want to split their time between the office, home, and other locations such as co-working spaces, libraries, or cafés. ComputerWeekly shares that a quarter of employers are planning to reduce their office space, while almost three-fifths say they planned to change meeting room layouts to make it easier for remote staff to participate in discussions, while 55% would add video-conference rooms. 

The biggest lesson from remote work whether we are working from home or office? This year of remote work has been the catalyst to readjust our relationship to work and how we work. In the next normal, employers will need to give employees the opportunity to decide where and how they work, prioritize work-life balance, and get the flexibility they need to do their best work.