Will remote work continue post-pandemic?

Employers may see that many onsite jobs 'could be done just about anywhere and could be done just as well,' one expert says.
By: | April 15, 2020 • 3 min read
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The coronavirus outbreak has forced employers to embrace work-from-home benefits at a rapid rate. But many HR and other corporate leaders may make the work arrangement permanent in a post-pandemic world.

New data from research firm the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) found that more than half of 27 employers surveyed plan to expand or increase flexible work arrangements on a more permanent basis after the coronavirus outbreak is contained. Just 15% said they did not plan to revisit remote work options in the wake of COVID-19.

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Still, a handful of employers are waiting to make permanent decisions until after the pandemic is out of sight. “It’s the conservative approach to managing a workforce, and it’s not surprising,” says Mark Englizian, senior strategy advisor for i4cp.

Related: I’m a remote worker. Here’s what I want HR leaders to know.

Many experts are watching to see whether remote work benefits will become the new normal after the pandemic forced the vast majority of office-based employees to carry out their jobs at home. As employers were left changing and adopting practices to enable workers to do so—and seeing that they worked well—it may stand to reason they keep those policies in place.

Mark McGraw

“It only makes sense that employers are going to think long and hard about expanding flexible work arrangements and remote work options once things return to some semblance of normalcy,” says Mark McGraw, i4cp’s total rewards research analyst. “I think companies are going to see that some, maybe many, of the jobs they’ve always thought had to be done onsite could be done just about anywhere and could be done just as well.”

Remote work arrangements had already been growing in prevalence and popularity: The number of remote workers increased by 159% between 2005 and 2017, according to an analysis of U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data by FlexJobs, a job-search site, and research firm Global Workplace Analytic.

And a majority of employees had been clamoring for flexible work options before the coronavirus outbreak, which may be more reason to sway employers to embrace the benefit. A survey of more than 1,500 workers from benefits provider Unum, for instance, found that flexible and remote work options were the second most-desired non-insurance perk, in a list of 16 options, including student-loan benefits, gym memberships and sabbatical leave.

Advocates say flexible working benefits—including remote work, flextime and compressed workweeks—encourage work/life balance and can result in higher productivity and increased employee satisfaction, loyalty and engagement. They also can help retain working parents, caregivers or workers with health conditions who have to balance doctors’ appointments and work hours.

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“For many, flexible and remote working options give people more choice in when, where and how they work, and a lot of people value that,” Kimberly Bowen, vice president of talent management at Unum, told HRE recently. “Having the option to work remotely may enable people to travel more, spend less time in traffic, or better balance their other responsibilities. These may seem like small wins, but that flexibility can play into employees’ overall wellbeing and quality of both work and life.”

For employers, the benefit can save money by lowering overhead and office costs. It also can help employers find and keep talent, Bowen says. “From a talent-acquisition perspective, offering employees the option to work remotely can open more possibilities in who you hire,” she says. “Quality talent can be scant in some geographic areas, but broadening your search to include remote workers outside of your market may help you find that perfect candidate.”

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.