The science of remote working. What can we expect in the future?

The science of remote working. What can we expect in the future?

Due to COVID-19, we all know that remote working suddenly became mandatory and there is a lot of fuss about the experience of it. Some people really love it, while others have quite some difficulties. On LinkedIn and on the news, we hear several personal stories varying from “I can’t handle the balance between the kids and work” to “I love being at home, not having to commute”. Although these stories make us feel compassionate, jealous, or inspired, it doesn’t give an accurate picture of the status of remote working. 

Many organisations (like us) are working hard now to gather data about the experiences of remote working, but it always takes these researchers (quite) a while to process the questionnaires, analyse and share the results. So our question was, what is currently known in science about remote working? What can we expect and for what should we anticipate?

Remote working experiences in China
The results of a post-COVID survey study in China are already available, which showed that more than half of the respondents think they adapted (very) well to working remotely, and 36.5% responded “so-so”. The biggest reasons for people preferring to work remotely was their flexible and free workplace and time and money savings on commuting. However, the reported downsides were the reliance of remote work tools, communication and coordination of work.

The experienced remoters
Of course, the current situation of remote working due to the crisis is different. Experiences with remote working might be different at the time, but there is also a big body of research on remote workers before the crisis. This data might hold valuable information for the future. If you look at the experience of remote working before the crisis, we see quite some happy remoters. This 2019 study surveyed over 3500 remote workers, and found that 70% of the respondents are happy with the amount of remote-working, in fact an additional 19% would like to spend more time working remotely. It seems that the more time people work remotely, the more happy they are with it. They mostly enjoy their flexible schedule, their flexibility to work from anywhere, and the fact that they don’t have to commute. On the other side, the factors which remote workers struggle the most are: loneliness, communication and the struggle to “switch off from work”. The reason for this is that 80% of the remote workers work from home, so the spatial and temporal borders between work and private time blurs. They work where they live, and their flexible schedule loses a clear rhythm throughout the week.

Organisational commitment and job satisfaction
It’s curious to know what remote working does to organisational commitment and job satisfaction. Are they forgetting about their work or are they continuously involved? It’s difficult to get hard data on this because it’s a complex case, but two well performed studies among call-center operators have shown that organisational commitment actually increases along with job satisfaction. These remote workers spent longer logged onto the system and answered more calls per minute. Despite work intensification, levels of job satisfaction rose, and job turnover fell. The only downside was that the remote workers’ chances of promotion were reduced.

Organisational factors
As you know, each organisation is different so remote working might not fit for every organisation. Some professions, or organisational styles of the company just don’t or do fit with remote working. Dependency on facilities/tools, confidential material, interpersonal contact, or management styles could all be reasons to restrict remote working. If we look at the trends we see that only 5% of the service- and labour intensive workers have the opportunity to work remotely. But there is a growing trend in professions like managers and knowledge workers (source). However, a mix of remote workers and in-bound workers can also lead to ineffective communication making it undesirable (source). The right policies and communication tools fitting to the organisation need to be in place in order to roll-out remote working successfully. 

Personal factors
As you know, each person is different, making remote working more fitting for some employees, even though tasks are similar. This study analysed the success of remote working for employees and found that autonomy is critical for the well-being of remote workers. Moreover, employees with lower levels of emotional stability are more susceptible to strain. But there are of course also contextual factors which might influence the effectiveness of remote working; the presence of distracting stimuli (like children or noisy neighbors), having a good workplace, etcetera. But one could also think of positive factors that contribute to desiring remote working: like parents with new-borns or care-givers.

Conclusions
Overall, it seems that remote working is quite appreciated. Many remote workers (especially the autonomous and stable ones) enjoy the flexibility and not having to commute. But there are downsides to it; bad communication and loneliness, and it just isn’t achievable for everyone. In the future, many people might rather come to the office a few days a week for meetings and brainstorming activities to compensate for their losses in communication and loneliness. Due to the crisis, many employees have tasted remote working by now, and organisations worked hard on making remote working possible, so it’s quite possible that, at least for some part, remote working is here to stay.

Habital® Remote
At Measuremen, we use Habital® Remote as a scientific way of investigating the impact of remote working. Although we still have a limited dataset, we can already see the data of our employees directly using our interactive Measuremen Portal. Our data shows that on average, people can perform their work quite well remotely. According to our data, distractions, and having a good workspace are the strongest predictors of performance. If you are interested in the performance of the employees of your own company, you could get in contact with Noel Brewster, or try our app directly by joining our global research initiative.