With a return to offices imminent, employers and employees alike have decisions to make
By Abraham Jewett
Picture yourself on a Nepalese mountaintop. Surrounded by stunning views of snow-kissed Himalayan peaks and valleys. A glass of crisp Hinwa wine rests in one hand. A laptop mouse in the other.
This, at least in theory, is the life of a digital nomad. An intrepid traveling worker unrestricted from rent or mortgage payments, office commutes or long days sitting behind a desk.
Among the digital nomad community are semi-retired professionals, entrepreneurs, young remote workers, and people who are independently wealthy but eager to grind out jobs and tasks.
Now, thanks to the COVID-19 health crisis, a niche lifestyle movement has become a familiar way of life for millions of Americans forced to trade work slacks for pajama bottoms.
“People are taking advantage of this new freedom they have to travel and work from different places,” Gonçalo Hall, a digital nomad and remote work consultant, told the Washington Post. “I think this new remote work wave will allow more and more people to (become digital nomads).”
Doing your job from your couch is different than dialing into a Zoom call from Mount Everest, of course, but the same concept remains: Why work out of an office if you don’t have to?
The number of people forced out of the office is, in fact, staggering. A December Pew Research poll revealed that 70% of respondents were working from home, while only 20% worked outside of the office before COVID. 54% of pollees reported they would want to continue working from home once the pandemic ends.
A similar survey conducted online by the Harvard Business School found a whopping 81% of those surveyed either did not want to go back to the office or preferred a hybrid schedule going forward.
Patrick Mullane, Harvard Business School’s executive director, told USA Today there is no singular reason why an employee may prefer to work from home, but the benefits are clear.
“I think it’s a combination of factors,” Mullane said. “We love working remotely in some ways; it gives us more time to focus, spend time with our families, and no long commutes back and forth to work.”
Time to return
On the other hand, being away from coworkers can be detrimental to an employee’s social life and cause symptoms of loneliness. A worker may also feel unsafe going back to the office in a post-COVID society where the need for maintaining healthy practices is on the forefront of people’s minds.
“It begs the question about how employers are going to make their employees feel comfortable in office settings,” Mullane told USA Today. “I’m sure there are going to be plenty of discussions with employers asking, ‘How do I bring them back safely?’”
In addition to providing a safe environment, companies must face the reality that many employees have become accustomed to working from home, including those who may have at first been weary.
The truth, it would appear, is that after more than a year of social distancing, lockdowns, and quarantine, many have changed their views on how work should be embedded into society.
Employees and employers alike are starting to question if an eight-hour workday is really necessary, for example, or if sitting behind an office desk is really the best way to be the most productive.
“It’s hard to know how it plays out,” Mullane told USA Today. “So, while everyone is jazzed about remote work, there will be some challenges to work through.”
Many companies, sensing the change in work to home life dynamic, have committed to remaining 100% remote, while others, such as Reddit and Microsoft, are choosing to follow a hybrid model, which will give employees more flexibility to work both in and out of the office.
While a hybrid approach will give employees the benefit of being able to maintain part of the lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to, it will not be the same as during COVID times, according to Andrew Hewitt, a senior analyst at market research firm Forrester.
“Many companies succeeded working remotely in 2020 largely because everyone was doing it – there was no built-in preference for office workers or stigma against remote workers,” Hewitt told CNN Business. “Hybrid is going to make managing this difference harder.”
The reality that businesses had no choice but to allow employees to work from home is significant in that now, once it becomes a choice, the guidelines for what productivity is expected, and how employers manage their remote workers, will shift accordingly.
“We’ve been playing remote work on easy mode. We’ve all been doing the same thing, everybody has had equal access to information and promotions,” Hewitt told CNN Business. “It will get harder in 2021 with hybrid.”
Additionally, companies went to great lengths to ensure that their employees could work from home with the correct equipment and with added benefits such as stipends, childcare allocations, and increased days off to help keep workers motivated and on task.
Once working from home isn’t a forced measure, but rather a basic option, it will no longer be seen as or treated like a perk, and employees will likely be interested to know how a company intends to manage a hybrid balance.
“It’s no longer: ‘Do you offer remote work?’ But do you offer it with enough organizational support so I can be as successful as the people who work in the office?” Hewitt told CNN Business.
So, whether you choose to become a digital nomad, travelling abroad while staying in hostels and soaking up the sun in places like Bali and Madrid, or would simply rather work from your couch than next to your boss, the time to decide has come.
Back to the office, or back to the couch? Either way, it’s back to work.