What COVID-19 Exposed About Remote Work

What COVID-19 Exposed About Remote Work

The pandemic has shown us that many jobs can be done remotely and flexibly, sparking an expanding dialogue about workers' freedom to choose their working conditions. As we stand on the precipice of a new world of work, which rights should workers be advocating for in this evolving landscape?

Published on April 28th, 2020 by Rhiannon Payne

How would your life change if you had a few extra hours each day to focus on your personal goals and wellbeing? What if you were able to manage your own schedule rather than being pigeonholed into working from 9 to 5?

As the ability to work completely online has become more and more accessible, remote work advocates have been asking workers and employers to consider these questions for the better part of this century.

(Note: This blog was originally posted on Medium in 2020.)

Per a 2019 survey, 81% of employees who work on-site said that the ability to work remotely would make them happier, and in a separate survey, 62% of US office workers said that they believed they could do their jobs at home at least a few days per week if given the opportunity.

Companies that have already moved their teams to remote work have seen numerous benefits, from massive cost-savings to increased productivity and employee retention. However, despite these benefits and an overall increase in remote work acceptance, most companies have remained resistant, particularly those rooted in more traditional industries and corporate environments.

But now, office workers and employers everywhere are finally facing the truth about remote work— just not in a way we could have anticipated.

As of March 2020, employees around the world have been mandated to switch to full-time remote work in wake of the COVID-19 crisis. As a remote worker of five years and a remote work advocate, I wondered what stumbling blocks or limitations workers and organizations would be encountering. I assumed that this transition might initially be challenging for those outside the tech sector or those working from home for the first time.

However, as Carla, a book publicist in New York, explained to me, “All the work we do is online anyway, so transitioning wasn’t difficult at all… [management] was just like, guys, we’re working from home now!”

This response was consistent across the dozens of people I interviewed for this article. Jeremy, a customer account manager in New Jersey, shared that his company’s projects and business operations had not been impacted at all, even though the company management “hasn’t really given any additional resources or support” during the transition.

“It’s business as usual,” he explains, “except all in-person meetings have been changed to conference calls.”

As Carla says, “[Our team] already meets via Google Hangouts… There is a level of human interaction my job requires, but I could definitely do 85% of my job from home.” When asked why she hasn’t been offered more opportunities for remote work previously, especially as a young mom, she simply states, “This has exposed so many cracks in the system.”

For Ali, a care coordinator at a community behavioral health center in Massachusettes, the ease of the transition to working from home has been both a blessing and an insult.

“For years we’ve been told that these jobs couldn’t be done remotely, yet many of us were able to transition over seamlessly and are still running profitable programs. They laughed in my face when I [previously] asked for accommodations to work at home one day a week to relieve the symptoms of my chronic physical and mental illnesses. But now that able-bodied people are being affected, it’s feasible?”

As for the benefits of working from home, “Being able to work in bed if I’m in pain is a dream,” Ali explains. “It also gives me more free time, because I can do little chores throughout the day rather than having to spend all of my time off cleaning. I’m also saving money on gas. Little things like that have really made a difference.”

For employers, the hesitation to accept remote work has previously come down to an antiquated understanding of what it means to work, combined with a general lack of trust in employees. But according to Heather McGowan, a prominent future of work strategist, COVID-19 is forcing them to confront these outdated mindsets.

“Bosses are learning that out of sight does not mean out of mind,” she writes. “Colleagues talk [to each other], in many cases, even more, and more effectively. And with no other alternatives, managers are trusting their people to do the right thing.”

McGowan also brings up important moral issues tied to remote work, such as environmental impact and income inequality.

If there has been one positive thing to come from the ongoing tragedy that is COVID-19, it’s a decrease in air pollution globally. Many of us have seen the viral images of how the decrease in traffic has transformed the Los Angeles skyline within just a few weeks, with incredible reports in early April that the city notorious for smog was enjoying the cleanest air of any major city in the world.

Los Angeles, CA before and after the shelter-in-place mandate [(source)](https://www.businessinsider.com/photos-stay-at-home-order-reduced-los-angeles-notorious-smog-2020-4){target="_blank"}

Although these dramatic changes have been happening during a city-wide shutdown, it’s undeniable that a reduction in traffic along with a redistribution of workers outside our major cities could transform our environment. Remote work presents a commonsense way to reduce the strain on our cities and our planet and could help maintain this environmental progress as the world “reopens.”

As we head toward a possible economic recession or depression, another issue at the forefront of our minds is that of income inequality. Remote work options can play a significant role in uplifting lower-wage office workers and reducing this gap.

On average, American workers have been spending $1,500 annually simply commuting to and from work, which represents 5% of the salary of an employee earning $30,000/yr. Other expenses associated with an over-packed schedule, such as eating out for lunch, have cost workers an additional $2,000 each year. Minimizing these office-related personal expenses would amount to a meaningful pay raise for many workers, not to mention the massive savings if workers could move to less expensive areas outside the big cities where major companies are based. Additionally, if companies are spending less to accommodate on-site workers, some will be able to free up capital for hiring or simply for keeping employees on their payrolls during tough economic times.

With the COVID-19 crisis showing us the benefits of remote work and proving that office jobs can be done remotely, at least part of the time, we as a culture are going to face a moment of reckoning when the time comes to go back to the office. We must ask, resoundingly, why flexibility for office workers isn’t seen as a fundamental worker’s right.

When an employer forces an office worker to be on-site from 9 to 5, five days a week, they are doing more than just demonstrating a lack of trust in their employees. They are cutting into their employee’s earnings, disadvantaging those with physical and mental illnesses, and taking away time that could be used to address our innate human needs for self-care, family care, and greater fulfillment. These rigid work structures serve ultimately to dehumanize those who can do their jobs just as well, if not better, from the comfort of their homes.

We must no longer accept arbitrary reasons for mandatory on-site office work. We must demand flexibility and choice as the cornerstones of the future of work.

For office workers, remote options aren’t one-size-fits-all. Many workers would still choose to go into the office either regularly or on occasion if possible, primarily to maintain a sense of routine and feel more connected with their co-workers.

For Anita, a web designer and developer in Los Angeles, being able to work from home has been overall positive, but she would still want to keep the office as an option.

“After two solid weeks of remote work, I have to say I love it,” she explains. “As a designer, having privacy is so important for creative brainstorming… I’m also a homebody and am really grateful I can continue to work due to the nature of my job. I could see myself working remotely full-time, but I still value going into an office, even if it’s only occasionally.”

Having options that work for individual workers and offering them choice must be part of a new set of standards, or Remote Work Bill of Rights, that we create and petition companies to uphold once the COVID-19 crisis has dissipated.

What should we be fighting for?

COVID-19 has shown that new standards for office workers can improve the lives of workers, reduce the strain on our environment, and will provide many benefits to businesses. I propose that workers and remote work advocates fight for these rights as a baseline:

  1. Office workers should have the option to work from home no fewer than two days per week.
  2. Office workers should be able to select which days and times each week they use their work from home time.
  3. Office workers should be able to create their own schedules that work within their roles without disrupting their team or projects.
  4. Workers should not be asked to take a pay cut or be offered a lower salary in exchange for remote benefits.
  5. Workers should be ensured access to the tools they need to successfully work from home, such as adequate internet connection, hardware such as a laptop, software such as digital communication tools, a comfortable office chair, and more.

The argument to companies is simple: When employees are empowered to live more flexible, humancentric lives, they will be happier, more productive, and have longer-term relationships with the companies they work for. In addition to these human benefits, companies can also save an average of $11,000 annually for each employee who moves to just half-time remote work.

Companies have already been forced to give remote work a try during this unprecedented period, and the world won’t simply go back to “normal” once COVID-19 has ended. Fear of change can no longer be used as an excuse to resist what is right. Change is upon us, impacting how all of us live and work across every industry globally.

It’s time for us to enter the future of work.

This blog was originally posted on Medium–be sure to follow and clap!