Remote Work or Return to the Office? It depends…
by Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, PhD & Pouran Faghri, MD*
Working from home was a luxury before the pandemic, and typically was composed of mostly people in professional, business, finance, management or freelance roles. Millions of American workers made a transition to “remote work” during the pandemic when employers complied with shut down orders and social distancing in workplaces. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in August 2020, 37% of Americans said they had switched to “telework” or “working from home” because of the pandemic. Those with higher incomes were far more likely to report switching to remote work (73% of those with annual incomes of $200,000 or higher, compared to 12.7% of those with annual incomes less than $25,000).
Millions more Americans, including many deemed “essential workers,” whose jobs could not be performed remotely, such as grocery, food processing, manufacturing, health care, and transportation workers, continued to go to workplaces. For many essential workers, there was also the added stress of possible infection from work and bringing home COVID-19 to vulnerable family members.
While relative safety from exposure to the virus was a perk for remote workers, it remains up for debate whether working from home was “better” than working in person. Anecdotal reports reflect conflicting experiences. For full-time working parents many experienced a well-documented increase in stress and anxiety, juggling full-time jobs from home and full-time child care and education of school-aged and younger children who were suddenly at home 24/7 as schools and child care centers closed down. The “blurring of boundaries” between work and home life was a reality for many men and women, finding small faces peeking from behind during zoom meetings, and struggles with spouses over trying to cover one another to attend said Zoom meetings without interruption. Some couples, when possible, would take different work shifts. In some cases, for single working parents juggling everything, it seemed impossible.
The result of these conflicts over almost a year and a half was that one spouse (typically women who statistically are likely to earn less money) decided to cut back hours or leave their job entirely to attend to children. Along with these voluntarily unemployed women were millions of women who were laid off from jobs in retail, food service, domestic work, or clerical work which resulted in what has been labeled the She-cession. The universal stressors brought on by the pandemic also resulted in a surge of mental health issues for both adults and children — and highlighted many social and economic disparities.
Reports about the quality of remote work have been mixed and may be dependent on workplace culture and working conditions before the pandemic. Some people reported that working from home provided them some relief from long commutes and negative office politics, as well as fewer meetings and interruptions so that they felt more productive during the pandemic. Some said they were able to take needed rest or exercise breaks, spent more time with friends or loved ones, or ran necessary errands.
On the other hand, some reports indicate that nearly 60% of remote workers said they felt guilty about taking any kind of break while working from home. Others reported that nervous managers assigned multiple zoom meetings to ensure people were at their desks all day. Sometimes, these less-than-useful meetings dominated the day and caused the completion of work tasks to spill into evenings and weekends — increasing work hours and workload during the pandemic. Constant surveillance by managers requiring immediate responses to internal “chats” or emails became a source of “conflicting demands” and time pressures.
Several studies prior to the pandemic do show evidence that productivity while working from home is better than working in an office setting. A 2015 Stanford article discusses an experiment conducted by a Shanghai firm with call center workers, showing those who were randomly assigned to work from home improved the firm’s “total factor productivity by between 20% to 30% and saved about $2,000 a year per employee working from home.” They believe this came from reduction in office space, reduced turnover, and almost ten minutes of extra work time a day from those working at home compared to those working at the office. Unfortunately, they also found that those working from home had reduced rates of promotion by 50%.
In June 2021, after almost 15 months of pandemic lockdowns and what looked like a successful vaccination campaign, many companies began talking about a “return to the office.” The consensus at the time was that employees needed to be back working in person. Some companies were requiring a return to the office by summer or at least by Labor Day, especially Wall Street financial companies like Bank of America and Morgan Stanley. Tech companies (including Apple, Google, and many others) were offering a more flexible approach, allowing employees to work at home two to three days a week, with only a few days in the office. Since the Delta variant has resulted in a surge of COVID cases among unvaccinated people in the U.S., these plans appear to be on hold for now.
New vaccine mandates by state and local governments, including the Veterans Affairs system, and many private healthcare systems, are being implemented. Some private sector businesses are also requiring (some employees to show) proof of vaccination to be able to return to the office and to help increase the stalled pace of vaccinations in the U.S. Labor unions are also negotiating with employers (whether public or private) over the implementation of these kinds of mandates.
When or if the virus levels off, or cases begin to decrease, what will the future of work be? What do remote employees want? In a Pew Research survey in October 2020, 70% of those surveyed said they were working from home and more than half of those reported wanting to continue working from home, at least part of the time, rather than return to an office environment full-time. And 70% said they would like to have more job flexibility.
There are many questions that remain. Reports suggest that younger people miss the social interaction in the workplace and feel more isolated. While working from home may have benefits for some, are there disadvantages for these younger workers? Will permanent remote work hurt workers with lower socioeconomic status who have fewer resources, like lack of adequate workspace or internet capacity in the home? Workplaces can be a major resource and a suitable workplace to perform jobs, having access to role models to mentor and learn on-the-job to improve skills which could increase productivity. Social interaction and social support can be an important part of some workplaces as well.
Anecdotal reports abound of people desperate to return to the office or desperate to remain working from home. For those workers who are already in industries that provide them some leverage with employers to negotiate the terms of their employment – including and especially unionized workplaces – a significant compromise could be found for workers who want flexibility to work at home permanently, or want a hybrid situation. The concern will be for those workers who have no choice over whether they are required to return to an office that may or may not be safe from coronavirus exposure, or who are required to work permanently at home in a less than ideal situation or without the benefits of structure, social support and interaction with coworkers.
Whether remote work suits some people and other people are better suited to an office environment, one unifying factor is the quality of working conditions. Unhealthy work includes psychosocial stressors, such as high job demands, low job control, work-family conflict, job insecurity, bullying, etc. Whatever your work location, experiencing these stressors is health-damaging. Assessing and addressing psychosocial risks will continue to be important to reducing the mental and physical health problems experienced by U.S. workers.
Learn more from our previous articles:
- “Blurred Boundaries: Work-Life Balance in the Time of COVID19” (May 2020)
- “Freelance and Gig Work during COVID-19” (June 2020)
- “Reopening Schools: Mental health vs Health & Safety?” (July 2020)
- “Air Travel and the Pandemic: an Epidemiologist’s Perspective” (August 2020)
- “COVID-19 Pandemic: What Has Work Got to Do With It?” (April 2021, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine)
- “Work Stress in the Age of COVID: What Can We Do?” (May 2021)
*This article was commissioned as part of the Healthy Work Campaign. To learn more and obtain free resources, visit https://healthywork.org.
Dr. Marnie Dobson is the Co-Director of the Healthy Work Campaign, as well as the Associate Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology. She is also an Assistant Adjunct Professor at the University of California, Irvine Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) where, for the last 12 years, she has been involved in work stress research, including qualitative, participatory methods, enhancing epidemiological studies and intervention development with several blue-collar working populations including firefighters and urban transit operators. She continues to teach occupational health classes at UCI and UCLA, as well as publish academic articles and book chapters and present at scientific conferences. (LinkedIn, Twitter)
Dr. Pouran Faghri is the Principal Investigator for the Healthy Work Campaign, Dissemination and Implementation Project and a Researcher with the Center for Social Epidemiology. She is an Adjunct Full Professor at the University of California Los Angeles, Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Fielding School of Public Health, and on the Advisory Board of the NIOSH Southern California Education and Research Center. She is also an Emeritus Professor at the University of CT and was the Director of the Center for Environmental Health and Health Promotion at the University of Connecticut. (LinkedIn, Twitter)
We would like to acknowledge the contributions made to this article by our colleagues:
- For science writing support: Peter Schnall
- For editorial support: Maria Doctor