When COVID-19 suddenly forced millions of Americans to work from home (WFH), employees and employers alike feared confusion, dislocation, and lost productivity. Instead, remote work proved to be one of the rare pandemic experiments that nearly all agree has gone better than expected. A year on, as vaccines finally put a return to the office within sight, companies are rushing to decide where WFH fits as a permanent part of their post pandemic strategy.
It's a decision with immense ramifications, argues a new report from The Conference Board.
COVID-19's Biggest Legacy: Remote Work and Its Implications for the Postpandemic Labor Market in the US confirms the sea change in thinking that has taken place over the past year. Before the pandemic, roughly 8% of workers with office jobs worked primarily from home. Conventional wisdom in most industries still held that workers would be less productive outside the office. Those fears failed to materialize, even as WFH rates soared. Companies, meanwhile, saw the long-term promise of remote work—from reduced spending on office space to massively expanding the talent pool available to hire from. But extrapolating these lessons to a postpandemic world requires caution.
"Remote work worked in 2020, with workers and employers reporting increased productivity on recent surveys," said Gad Levanon, Vice President, Labor Markets at The Conference Board. "But 2020 was also a year like no other, full of stressors likely to drive employees to work harder and longer. Whether remote work can be as effective in normal economic conditions remains to be seen. Leaders need to be armed with trusted in-house performance analytics—and a clear-eyed view on collaboration and culture—as they seek the optimal balance of remote work in the months and years ahead."
"Beyond its impact on individual organizations, the rise of remote work has the potential to transform the US economy and society as a whole," said Dana Peterson, Chief Economist of The Conference Board. "If WFH trends hold, millions of workers may relocate over the next decade in search of lower living expenses and higher quality of life. As employees disperse beyond commuter zones, companies may find it increasingly difficult to reverse a decision to embrace remote work."
Among the report's key findings:
The pandemic rapidly transformed employers' attitudes toward remote work. Survey data and hiring trends point to much of this change becoming permanent:
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