To Commute By Car, By Train or By Zoom?

What managers and workers should consider about continuing remote work

July 20, 2021
Behavioral Science, Management
illustration of person videoconferencing on computer

With almost half of the U.S. vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, many employees who have been working remotely are beginning to trickle back to the office.

For many reasons, the office won’t resemble the places they left behind in 2020.

Surveys on the future of work show many workers want to keep working remotely, and expect their companies to continue allowing remote work for the foreseeable future. Having enjoyed a reprieve from stressful or costly weekday commutes, many say that if their companies require in-person work full time, they’re willing to quit and find a job that allows remote work.

Management expert Hemant Kakkar, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, studies organizations and the hierarchies within them. He outlined some of the issues workers and managers should consider about continuing to work remotely.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations were reluctant to allow remote work, suggesting employees would be less productive. How have attitudes among management shifted during the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations and managers into a remote-work experiment. However, this forced experiment may have negatively affected managers’ attitudes towards their employees. Although some research suggests any stigma about working from home has reduced, workers and managers also report distrust of how much work remote employees are actually completing. Part of it has to do with the sudden change in working practices. A lot of managers were not ready or trained to coordinate with employees working remotely.  

The second reason is more psychological and deals with how our brains are wired. We tend to think a worker is more intrinsically driven and hard-working if we see them sitting at their desk – even if that individual is not working. Research suggests such passive ‘face time,’ or observing a person without interacting directly, leads to greater feelings of commitment and trustworthiness about those workers. Such inferences can definitely impact managers’ promotion or appraisal decisions of workers with whom they share greater face time.

But there are things remote workers can do. Research shows they can mitigate any negative effects of working remotely by either working more hours – which, of course, is not an ideal solution – or having more face-to-face meetings with their managers.

Some jobs are more suited to remote work. What should organizations consider about allowing some to work remotely while others are required in person?

Not every company can transition as easily as the tech industry into managing a remote workforce. When you think about retail or engineering, it’s very hard for these companies to allow employees to work from home. So this is a scenario that is raising questions about fairness in organizations.

For instance, Ford updated its work policy this year to allow 30,000 employees who sit in administrative and corporate offices the option to permanently work from home, but people who are on the shop floor and work in manufacturing plants have to come in.

Historically, we have already seen a divide between what we used to call ‘blue-collar workers’ and ‘white-collar workers.’ So this is raising questions about fairness and equity, and could create motivational questions for workers.

One recent research paper found that employees, on average, value working from home as equivalent to 8% of their salary. One could suggest that workers who must report in person may ask for a similar premium to be in the office or facility. For example, workers could ask for more money to come back to offices. Employers will have to think about how to compensate those workers who are required in person, especially considering that, even with vaccinations, they may be taking some additional risks that other workers are not taking.

Can working remotely be bad for your career?

When leaders see someone in person, they are reminded that employee is working and available. If you are not visible in the office, this could lend the impression that you are not as committed or engaged as others.

Hopefully the pandemic and managing remote workers has changed the way people think about these things, but this is still an issue. A recent study of tech workers found that remote employees’ promotion and salary increases were equivalent so long as a majority of their co-workers were working remotely. When a majority of employees started coming to the office, those working remotely saw fewer promotions and raises.

If you are working remotely while others on your team are present in person, you have to show your face in other ways. This could mean joining more meetings on Zoom. Maybe find other ways to interact and keep your supervisors updated on your work, such as letting them know you have achieved all the goals expected for that day. Communication is the key in such situations. Sometimes you may even want to over-communicate to let them know that you are working and engaged.

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