Back to the office – or better not?
Working from home during the pandemic fundamentally changed the workplace both for employers and employees
1 Jul 2022

Millions of professionals around the globe experience a realization during the COVID-19 pandemic: they do not need to be in the office to get their work done. A variety of digital tools and the internet allow them to work from almost anywhere. To the surprise of many, this actually worked well, says Peter Cappelli, Professor of Management at The Wharton School and Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. In his book “The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work, and the Hard Choices We All Face,” he points out how remote work is often welcomed by employees but poses challenges for employers. 

You claim that the workplace has changed fundamentally with the onset of the pandemic. Why do you think we cannot just go back to the office?

Because we are in the middle of what might be the biggest experiment in the world of work ever. If you had told me in March 2020 that offices would be closed for years, I probably would have predicted that the economy would collapse and society as we know it would be finished. Considering that, it is quite remarkable how well we did. But now it is important that we do not waste the opportunity to learn from this.

During the pandemic, working from home quickly became the new normal. Why have we never done it before if it works so well? Was it a problem of technology?

Technology was never really the issue. There are several examples of remote work or of ‘telework’ in the US which even pre-date what we today call “remote work.” It started in Los Angeles in the 1970s, with the purpose of reducing people’s exposure to air pollution during their commutes. So the actual question is: What did executives think about remote work before the pandemic? To be blunt, they were not really thinking about it at all because they did not have a reason to do so. But it also shows an underlying assumption amongst managers that if you are not in the office, you are not working. Post-pandemic, the employees are asking: If it went so well, why should we go back to the office?

Employers might not see a direct incentive for remote work unless they can save on the rent for the office. Do you know of other beneficial aspects of remote work? Are people more productive?

Unfortunately, most employers have never systematically analyzed how productive remote work is. Most of the little data we have come from IT workers, since their output is easier to monitor. These data show that the working day is longer for people doing remote work. We do not exactly know why, but it might be that people are taking longer breaks. They take their dog for a walk or spend more time with their families. Another indication of this is that the after dinner working hours have increased significantly for remote workers in the US, especially those with children. But since we lack data, we cannot really say if they work more or less than before.

In my opinion, a better start would be figuring out why employees generally like remote work. We know from other US data sources that it is not because of commuting, since overall traffic is almost back to where it used to be. I think people like remote work because they have more control over their time and are not micromanaged. Employers should care about remote work simply because employees like it, not because of productivity levels. Employers usually worry about turnover, hiring, motivation and engagement — all of which may be affected by employees being able to work remotely.

McKinsey just published a study claiming that the opportunities of remote work do not depend on a specific profession, but rather on specific activities. Surely, it can be beneficial in IT-based activities. But when it comes to creativity or innovation, is it not better to have people work together in person?

Of course, remote work depends on the specific task. Some might be carried out from home, but this might be an oversimplification. Imagine you have kids at home or you are living with your in-laws — then even a simple task might become quite difficult to perform. From my own experience, most people at the university who are back to the office are those with kids. Since there is no easy solution that works for everybody, the idea of a hybrid solution seems so appealing. But hybrid also significantly increases the complexity for the employer.

What can employers do to profit from remote work? Should they invest in tools for monitoring?

My advice to employers is figure out what works. It should not be hard. Just ask your employees, maybe do a survey. Ask them what worked well for them during the pandemic and what they liked about remote work. It is remarkable how little employers actually know about why their employees prefer to work remotely. They just assume it is about less commuting, which might not be true.

Instead, companies prefer software-driven solutions, but these control people and limit flexibility. The issue cannot be solved with software or technology because it involves management decisions. These questions are fundamentally connected to what the leaders think about their organization, what they are willing to invest in it, and what they are willing to tolerate. It has nothing to do with facts or data, but with the prejudices of the leaders. 

Here’s the link to the podcast of Peter Capelli:

* Marianne Schörling is Head of Stakeholder Engagement at Geneva Macro Labs & Daniel Samaan is Economist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
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