Whatever happened to remote work - featured image

What happened to remote work?

We hate to take you back there, but just for a moment, think back to mid-2020 when remote work went from being a comfy perk to a societal necessity.

As workplaces adjusted and business did its best to go on as usual, the speculation began that we were not only in the midst of a historic pandemic but also experiencing a remote work revolution.

The most optimistic among us (some may choose the term “naive”) envisioned a post-pandemic future where working from anywhere was a given, offering new levels of flexibility for the ol’ 9 to 5. We made it work for 2 years, why wouldn’t that option continue?

Fast forward to today and it seems like that fantasy is teetering on the edge. A quick scroll on LinkedIn yields provocative articles about the death of remote work, and some low-level empirical research on my part shows that remote jobs are hard to come by and the hybrid model hasn’t turned out to be as flexible as it sounded.

We can’t rely very well on the research of one writer asking people about their experiences with remote work. But actual studies, on the other hand, do help to paint a clearer picture about why you might feel like your remote work aspirations are in shambles — and if they actually are.

Here’s some food for thought:

Employee vs Employer Preference

A 2023 article by the European Central Bank explains that 60% of respondents had never worked from home before the pandemic, dropping below 40%. It also found that employees’ desire for WFH increased after the pandemic.

This trend was most notable among the 25% looking to work remotely 2-4 days/week post-pandemic, suggesting a rise in the desire for hybrid work agreements rather than full-remote.

As we exited those woeful years of isolation, it seems that many businesses started to get the memo, with 60% of people feeling that their work-from-home preference aligned with the preference of their employer.

Other studies state that remote work increased by 28% in Europe after the pandemic, and about 40% of employees are expected to work remotely in Europe by 2025.

If that doesn’t sound like you, you’re probably part of the 30% that have higher WFH preferences than their employer, meaning you want more flexibility than your job allows. Considering the correlation between worker retention and WFH alignment, it would explain why you’ve been scrolling LinkedIn with the remote filter turned on.

Given these numbers, it seems that WFH is alive and well, and we can only expect it to become more available.

So what gives? Why is there this sensation that the whole shebang is being rescinded.

Lack of Deeper Flexibility

We might suggest that we’ve mistaken remote work for flexibility, on a more existential level, and that being able to work from our couches twice a week has not generally given us more autonomy over the 8 hours a day we’re on the clock.

This can also explain the 35% of people in Europe who are currently or would like to become self-employed with remote work being among the main motivations.

Perhaps employees have had a taste of freedom and grown hungry for more.

Raj Choudhury, an economist from Harvard Business School, makes sense of this in an interview with WIRED, stating:

“There are two kinds of companies… One is going to embrace work-from-anywhere, and the second is in denial—I feel those companies will lose their workforce.”

The article goes on to make the point:

“[the] three days in, two days out” model was certainly expected to become a norm when we first imagined … what life would be like after Covid. But since emerging from our bedrooms and kitchen tables we’ve recognized that we’re not at the end of this story—we’re still at the beginning of it.”

So if your hybrid model isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, it could be that as quickly as we got used to WFH, we also got over it and began looking longingly at what’s next in the push-pull of work-life balance.

But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows

If you’ve been following Akepa, you’re probably aware that we fall squarely in the “pro-remote work and flexibility” camp. It’s an approach that’s backed by a smattering of studies – including one of the most comprehensive so far from Nature in June 2024. The findings revealed that remote workers were just as productive, and more retainable, while also having higher wellbeing.

We’re also fans of the hefty emissions benefits of remote work.

Yet, as effusive as we are, we also pride ourselves on not being partisan. We do our best to create pragmatic articles that make room for nuance.

In that spirit, it only makes sense to look at criticisms of remote work, and why some employees/employers still opt for the office.

Burnout

One common criticism of remote work is that it can contribute to burnout. An article in Forbes highlights that remote workers save an average of 72 minutes per day by not commuting, theoretically resulting in lower energy expenditure by employees and higher quality of work.

The downside is that the time gained isn’t necessarily used for rest, but rather for additional tasks. Plus, by removing the commute, we also remove the buffer between work and home where our minds can gradually shift to other things and process the events of the day.

As these two factors compound, chronic employee burnout can still become likely, with a different set of causes.

Isolation

Another drawback that remote workers may be familiar with is feelings of loneliness and isolation. Not only is this emotionally distressing, but it can also impact people’s physical health, stress levels, and decision-making ability.

This isolation can also impact collaboration between employees, as there is a greater time gap between asking a question and receiving the answer, and the various departments are not as accessible. Furthermore, you cut out the niceties and conversations that arise in casual encounters within an office setting. It’s true that avoiding these may be an advantage for some but for others they add a bit of cheer to the day.

Despite the countless productivity tools, there has yet to be a true replacement for face-to-face communication.

Less Opportunity

Remote work can fall short in promotional opportunities as well. The argument can be made that by not having the multi-dimensional interactions that commonly take place in an office, the qualities of a team member may not shine through as quickly.

This could mean that ambitious team members are overlooked for an external hire or someone more often physically in the office.

The age-old question: What’s next?

Balancing the challenges that accompany remote work with the innate human desire for self-agency is no easy task, but it’s one we feel is manageable.

The truth is that WFH as we know it is so 2020 — at least for the most progressive of organisations.

As we’ve seen, it seems that the mass shift to remote work and its acceptance post-pandemic wasn’t the end of a movement, but the beginning of one.

We might suggest that the future of work looks to be evolutions of the existing hybrid models, aided by new technologies and revamped workplace cultures. By aligning those two things, we see an opportunity for more workplaces built on flexibility, agency, and accountability to arise.

The tools already exist, they just need to be implemented.

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Eric Sandstrom

Eric is a creative hailing from Canada. He holds a BBA in Marketing and an MA in Photography, which he draws on to create engaging content.

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