Celebrity Travel:

  • Many employees have been forced to work from home because of the coronavirus.
  • If telecommuters do their jobs effectively, remote work could become more common and more acceptable.
  • Research suggests that employees can be just as effective as their in-office colleagues, if they get a few things right.
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We’re in the middle of a major experiment on remote work.

The new coronavirus pandemic has prompted companies around the world to close their offices, in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading further. That means many employees who typically work on site are now logging on from home.

No one would have wished for a global outbreak of a virus. But one potential business outcome is that remote work may quickly become more acceptable, and more accessible to employees.

Global Workforce Analytics, a flexible-work research firm and consultancy, analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that just 7% of US employers offered flexible work options to most or all of their employees in 2019. That’s 40% more than in 2014 — but it’s still not a whole lot.

The current situation is a “watershed moment” for remote work, said Timothy D. Golden, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) who’s spent more than two decades studying telecommuting. If people are able to complete their tasks effectively, employers will likely be more receptive to the practice moving forward.

Celebrity Travel: Unexpected remote-work situations can be a chance to discover new ways of getting things done

Remote workers generally aren’t any less productive than their colleagues in the office. In fact, they can be even more engaged, more productive, and less likely to quit, said Brie Reynolds, the career development manager at FlexJobs, a job site for remote work. Not to mention the fact that employers can cut operational costs when some of their workers are out of the office.

Yet even at companies that have flexible work policies, some employees say they’re worried about the stigma around remote work, and that they’ll be seen as slackers if they telecommute.

A 2020 Deloitte survey of 1,000 US professionals found that nearly 30% said the potential consequences to their professional growth and a lack of trust from leadership would prevent them from taking advantage of flexible work policies. And 80% agreed that working regular business hours, in the office, is important for their career advancement.

Golden said these employees’ fears aren’t necessarily unfounded. Some bosses still adhere to old management norms like, “How can I manage someone I can’t see?” In other words: If I can’t swing by my employee’s desk and peer over their shoulder, I won’t know if they’re goofing off on social media all day.

But Golden said the coronavirus pandemic, and the resulting spike in remote work, may accelerate the shift toward embracing flexible work.

Consider: During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, S&P Global (formerly called McGraw Hill Financial) had to instruct its employees to work remotely. That experience led the company to expand its flexible-work options going forward.

Before the hurricane, McGraw Hill executives told FlexJobs, the use of flexible-work options “was more on an exception basis, rather than a norm.” But, they added, “the Sandy experience brought a level of understanding to all our teams that we can operate with a significant part of our workforce working outside of the office environment.” Now, all employees are given laptops and sometimes other tools to facilitate remote work.

Stew Friedman, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of Business and the author of “Parents Who Lead,” said emergency situations (like Hurricane Sandy or the coronavirus pandemic) can be “an opportunity to discover ways of working that are more accommodating of people’s non-work interests.” Those newly discovered ways of working may even be more effective.

Celebrity Travel: Remote workers can be just as successful as their in-office colleagues, if they get a few things right

Golden and Kimberly A. Eddleston at Northeastern University recently published a paper that dissects the link between telecommuting and career success. (Golden said “telecommuting” technically refers to someone who doesn’t physically travel to their office, while “remote work” describes work that’s always displaced from the office. The paper uses the term telecommuting.)

The researchers looked at 405 employees at a US technology firm, some of whom telecommuted and some of whom worked in the office. Over a period of six years, telecommuters saw slightly slower salary growth than their non-telecommuter peers; but the rate of promotions was the same across the two groups.

When the researchers dug in further, they saw a few key behaviors that influenced telecommuters’ professional success. Telecommuters were more successful when they:

  • Had colleagues in their unit who also telecommuted
  • Didn’t telecommute all the time
  • Worked outside normal business hours
  • Arranged regular face time with their managers

It’s not clear from this study exactly how many employees on a team have to telecommute for telecommuting to be considered common. But Golden said the more people who telecommute, the more standardized the practice becomes — and the better off employees are in terms of promotions and salary raises. 

That makes sense to Friedman. If remote work is the norm at a particular company, he said, “it’s not going to be seen as your lack of commitment.” And the organization will likely have developed “codes of conduct that ensure that those who are not physically present are a part of the conversation.”

The RPI study also found that the more time employees spent telecommuting (versus working in the office), the less successful they were, in terms of raises and promotions. Other research suggests that full-time telecommuting isn’t the best move: A 2016 survey by the collaborative design firm Gensler found that the most innovative employees in the UK spent about 3.5 out of 5 workdays in the office, and worked remotely the rest of the time.

Perhaps the most troubling finding from the RPI study is that telecommuters are more successful when they do some work outside of regular business hours. But it fits with previous research on the topic. Business Insider’s Allana Akhtar reported on a University of California-Santa Barbara study that suggests many remote workers feel the need to prove that they’re working just as diligently as their colleagues in the office, so they wind up being “always on.”

Celebrity Travel: Communication is critical for remote workers

Experts agree that remote workers are more successful when they maintain an open dialogue with their manager.

Reynolds, the FlexJobs career development manager, said it helps to set expectations about when you’ll be available and how you’ll stay connected to the rest of the team — and even about seemingly trivial things like whether you should text your boss or instant message them when you have an update.

In some cases, Reynolds added, a hybrid of remote and in-office work can be the best option, given research suggesting that the most successful employees work remotely only sometimes and that they have face time with their boss.

Friedman, the Wharton professor, recently had an experience that changed the way he thought about remote work. 

Because of the coronavirus, Friedman arranged a virtual class instead of traveling to California to teach an executive MBA course in San Francisco like he usually does. Afterward, some students told Friedman that the virtual class was better than the in-person class. Everyone’s face was close up on the screen, and the connection was more intimate. Some students told Friedman, “I felt like you were talking just to me.”

Friedman’s takeaway about remote work is that it’s important to go in with an open mind. “If you do it right,

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