Although scientific research has historically highlighted the benefits of remote working—including a boost in employee morale, health and well-being, and productivity—that was before the pandemic. The research assumed that working from home was a choice rather than a necessity and that organizations offered alternatives between telecommuting or coming to the office.
This arrangement allowed for a significant degree of self-sorting, where employees gravitated to the option that best suited their personal circumstances (e.g., commuting time, location, physical space, and need for in-person meetings), as well as their personality.
But what happens when there is no choice and people who never worked from home are forced to do so? Can Zoom fully substitute for face-to-face contact, especially in the long term? What are the psychological consequences of continued remote work, and is there anything we can do to prepare for it?
Only time will tell us for sure. One thing we know about the future is that nobody has data on it. In that sense, what long-term working from home will do to us individually and culturally resembles the question of what social media addiction or hyper-connectivity will do to our brains and society. Let’s wait and see.
There are worrying signs, or at least rational reasons to predict negative consequences of prolonged remote work, not least because of the abrupt and nonvoluntary way in which these changes have happened.
Social isolation is a real problem. When organizations don’t put in the right support networks and foster a culture of virtual collaboration and connectedness, many employees will be at risk of feeling lonely. Not all managers are equipped to make the transition from analog to Zoom management. To make matters worse, the crisis may increase existing inequalities, harming women and minorities more.
Uncertainty triggers anxiety. For all the talk of agility, adaptability, embracing uncertainty, and thriving in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world, most humans are prewired to optimize their habitats for boredom and predictability. We can even deceive ourselves into thinking there is a higher degree of certainty than actually exists. We crave meaning, so in the absence of familiarity, we feel unsafe. When we are unable to plan we experience discomfort and helplessness. All this means that remote working alone is not as problematic as the prospect of doing it for an indefinite time. We don’t know what it means for our general life plans and lifestyle, and we’re unable to make key logistical decisions, including where to live, what to expect for our long-term career prospects and employability, and how to manage our personal lives and relationships.
Changes of any sort generate anxiety and stress. This is why the single best predictor of how well people are coping with remote work is whether they were working remotely before. There’s a big difference between people who opted for remote work prior to this crisis and are simply continuing, and those who were forced to switch. If your new normal looks a lot like your old normal, you are in luck. But since most people don’t fall into this category, and those affected are likely to have negative domino effects on those who should not be affected, the entire playing field is disrupted. People who have worked from home all along had to adjust to others who were forced to switch to virtual work, or forced to stop working altogether. There’s also been a significant divide in people’s ability to switch to remote work based on whether they have children or not.
No substitute for face-to-face
Fourth, it is not possible to simply erase our evolutionary bandwagon and replace millions of years of in-person interaction with technologically mediated or virtual communications. If Zoom and similar tools have helped us recreate a certain degree of face-to-face experience, it’s as much thanks to technology as the power of human imagination. It is interesting that most of the technology we leverage, and perhaps even enjoy, is to replicate real-life experiences. But the general feeling is that virtual contact is just a cheap substitute for real contact, and most people prefer drinks to Zinks. Perhaps the future role for the office is to operate as a social theater where we can get our needed dose of in-person contact.
A bright spot
What people value most is flexibility. As a global ManpowerGroup report noted, the world of talent was trending toward the customization and personalization of work. This is incompatible with making everyone work remotely, not least when it interferes with personal and family arrangements. One result is that employers will soon differentiate themselves by their ability to offer choices.
Remote working has many advantages, which is why as many as 37% of the workforce adopted it even prior to the current pandemic. Academic research and large-scale data have long outlined the main benefits of remote working, from boosting productivity and work-life balance to reducing costs and time-wasting. Remote working helps to improve traffic congestion and, with it, the environment. We can also be hopeful that the big virtual reset will force organizations to improve their ability to measure employee performance, sanitizing and sterilizing office politics, making companies more meritocratic and talent-centric.
Let’s not forget that humans are remarkably resilient and adaptable and that the hardest and most difficult part of the challenge, to make the initial switch, has already been managed. The hope now is that we bounce back stronger and better after the crisis is over, or at least under control.