Only 11% of employers in a recent Conference Board survey report that they expect to require all their workers to return to the office over the long term—although 27% of respondents said their plans were unknown—and about a third say that 40% or more of their workforce will be primarily remote.
Other estimates suggest that after the pandemic, 25% of work time will be from home, versus 5% before the pandemic.
Many companies will no doubt offer employees a choice—one that employees could find difficult. However, research on office dynamics among partially remote workforces can offer some guidance as to the questions employees should be asking before making their decision.
The answers to these questions will go a long way in helping workers make the right choice for them.
Who else is going back?
This is probably the most important question. When most people are working off-site, there isn’t a significant advantage to being in the office. Everyone is in the same boat—communicating with peers and managers on video, and doing their work in relative solitude.
But the dynamic changes if lots of people start moving back to the office while others elect to stay home.
In a study conducted in two large tech firms, employees found that they got less respect when they began working remotely and ended up being less involved in significant decisions.
Many important decisions must be made quickly—how to handle an accident at a plant, a product recall or an immediate need from a client, say—and people who are on the spot naturally get more of a say.
And, based on our own experiences investigating how people work, employees on-site often have the chance to shine by contributing to decisions that aren’t their responsibility, simply because they are around and can be in on the conversations. Other employees lose out on that if they are at home.
Remote workers also miss the chance to stay up-to-date about company norms or recent events, things that come from observing others and networking in real life. When we hear the boss mutter something under her breath after reading the latest requirement from human resources, we learn not to make it a priority. Seeing the anger on the CFO’s face when he sees the overrun on a project teaches us to wait until next quarter before making any new demands.
Things can escalate. People who aren’t around the office can easily be labeled not that important, and may be signaling—unintentionally—weaker commitment to the organization, according to the study of the tech firms.
Of course, all this has to be weighed against some of the positives of working from home—the ability to get more work done because you aren’t wasting time commuting or being distracted by others in the office.
Do I want promotions?
For similar reasons, remote workers may have a tougher time getting promoted—one study found that they were promoted at a 50% lower rate than their peers. When many people are located in the office, being around those in power is crucial to advancing, even if those who work from home deliver the same performance as counterparts on-site, other research has found. “It is just much harder to know if you can count on someone you don’t work with close every day,” said one boss in the study.
Managers may fail to see the hours put in by people who are working from home, even when they are working longer than their office colleagues, the researchers found. And bosses tend to attribute more positive personality traits and fewer negative ones to employees who spend a long time in the office, the researchers discovered. Making things even tougher, it is more difficult for remote workers to engage in “impression management,” influencing how they are perceived and showing their commitment.
To compensate, the researchers found, remote workers made decisions that they knew their bosses couldn’t miss, such as taking meetings that interfered noticeably with family obligations—such as a Zoom call during a child’s birthday party—or taking on tasks that are known to be difficult. All of which takes a toll: In the study, the need to continually signal dedication led people to become disengaged or quit.
Will I end up with worse workplace relationships?
There are some positives to being away from colleagues. Workers aren’t caught up in day-to-day office politics, for one thing, and aren’t under constant scrutiny by those around them.
But remote work can lead to feelings of professional and social isolation, and these feelings may be worse if their co-workers are primarily on-site, according to a study of employees working in government and in technology. On the other hand, if the majority of employees work outside of the office, even going into the office can be a lonely experience with close co-workers not being there.
Meanwhile, a meta-analysis review of prior studies on remote work concludes that people who spend the majority of their time telecommuting, while their peers don’t, frequently find themselves with worse relationships at the office—and the more they work remotely, the worse it gets.
Why? When people are around each other, they have more chances to talk, learn about each other and develop a relationship, as we have learned from years of experience with office dynamics. What’s more, social relationships are built on reciprocity: You pass on some information to me, and later, I do the same for you. If I’m not around, I have less to pass along.
Over time, team members in the office may develop an in-group/out-group mentality, treating those who are with them better than those who are not physically present. They may hold back information from those at home, for instance, or take their demands and requests less seriously, research has found.
What kind of work will I be doing?
If people are largely working on their own without interacting much with colleagues—such as programmers and workers at a call center—it can be much easier to do a job from home. A study of individual contributors in a call center found that productivity was 13% higher working from home, in large part through being able to work longer.
But jobs like these are also the easiest to turn into contracting positions, and employers have been pushing more jobs in that direction already. And if someone’s work requires a lot of coordination with other peers, it might be better to work in an office alongside them.
When members of a team work from different locations, there generally are more sources of possible confusion and misinterpretation than when members of a team work together in an office. That’s because of communication challenges inherent in the distributed situation. An elaborate, cross-national research project involving distributed teams examined the interaction of the participants down to the level of their email traffic. The difficulties begin with problems in anticipating the information needed to make the collaboration work, working out timetables for each of the participants and adapting to problems in each location that participants elsewhere didn’t understand.
Even more basic, it can be tough for far-flung team members to accurately interpret and respond to each other’s messages. The study found that silence could mean different things for different people, ranging from strongly agreeing—meaning there is no need to respond—to not knowing how to address a conflict remotely, or not wanting to put a response in writing.
Who will be supervising me?
You must also consider who your boss will be. A study of a technology consulting company, conducted by one of us, found that when supervisors were new to their role, employees actually performed better when their work was done remotely. The explanation: Inexperienced supervisors tend to micromanage and frustrate their subordinates, but such scrutiny wasn’t easy to do when employees were working remotely. On the other hand, the more complicated a project is, the more you need experienced supervisors with the connections to anticipate and solve problems with resources and stakeholders. Left in less experienced hands, a project may falter or fail—making you look bad and hurting your career.
How has the company been managing remote work so far?
It will be much easier to work from home if an employer has been clear and explicit about performance management—“Here’s what we want you to do and how we want to measure that work.” It shows they understand the new reality of telecommuting and are trying to adapt to it.
But it is a bad sign if the company is spending money on “tattle” software that monitors what employees are doing, instead of, say, requiring supervisors to do more check-ins. These kinds of moves show a lack of trust in remote workers and a clumsy attitude toward handling the situation.
And, of course, software that keeps you tied to your desk defeats the reason to be home. People want to be able to step away and do something important for a few minutes.
Will I be allowed to return to the office at all?
There is one final calculation that remote workers need to make. Many people think that even if they work from home, they’ll be able to come into the office occasionally to network and catch up on the latest doings.
But this may be a losing bet. If working from home becomes popular enough, companies may start to eliminate some office space entirely. Chief financial officers seem to like the idea of permanent working from home because it allows cutting back on office costs, among other things.
Like it or not, the “either office or home” choice may be one that many people may face. It is best to go into it with your eyes open.
Dr. Cappelli is George W. Taylor professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Bonet is an associate professor of human resource management and organizational behavior at IE Business School in Madrid. They can be reached at email@example.com.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.