Remote work isn’t new. Telecommuting has long been a part of office life — who hasn’t worked from home every once in a while?
With the rise of high speed internet and video conferencing, however, remote work has gone from an occasional luxury to a common practice that more and more companies are embracing.
In this article, we’ll check in on the state of remote work in 2020. We’ll examine studies on the numbers of remote workers and on their productivity. We’ll also look at the ways that telecommuting helps workers, as well as the challenges remote workers face. And we’ll look at data on people who work from home vs. working from coworking spaces. Then finally, we’ll share some resources for remote workers.
Remote Work Is Still on the Rise
At the start of the 2000s, we saw a massive rise in telecommuting, fueled by improving internet speeds, faster computers, and changing perceptions about remote work. According to a New York Times article published in 2014, “By one estimate, telecommuting has risen 79% between 2005 and 2012 and now makes up 2.6% of the American workforce, or 3.2 million workers, according to statistics from the American Community Survey.”
Three years after that article was published, that number was up to 3.9 million workers, according to U.S. Census data used in the 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce Report. And the numbers have only gone up since then.
Last year, Owl Labs compiled a 2018 Global Report on the State of Remote Work, in which they interviewed over 3,000 office workers across six continents. The respondents worked in various fields including finance, healthcare, manufacturing, education, and hospitality. Their numbers were clear: 18% of those surveyed said they now work full-time from home.
And telecommuters aren’t just freelancers or people who are working in the gig economy — more and more full-time workers are working from home, at least part of the time.
The same report found that 52% of employees surveyed from around the globe work from home at least once a week, and 68% work from home at least once a month.
Benefits for Remote Workers
Remote work is growing more and more popular, but it’s still misunderstood. There are several misconceptions about people who telecommute, especially with regards to productivity.
Looking at the data, however, shows a pretty clear picture when it comes to the benefits of remote work — for workers and employers.
Cutting the Commute
People often complain about a bad commute. It’s almost cliche for office workers to bemoan the long drive through traffic. But bad commutes are serious business, and can affect people’s job happiness more than you might realize.
A report from Global Workplace Analytics found that:
- 14% of Americans say they’ve changed jobs purely to shorten their commute.
- 92% of people surveyed were concerned with the high cost of fuel.
- 80% were specifically concerned about fuel costs in relation to their work commute.
- 66% said they would take another job to ease their commute.
Commutes are often long and stressful. Even for people who love their job, a long commute can be emotionally draining and change their perception of the company they work for. People tend to value their work and their personal life — commutes cut into the time spent on both of those things.
Remote work not only eases a commute, it eliminates it. Companies have found that allowing people to work from home and giving them a break from a commute, even one day a week, can vastly improve employee happiness.
“If you offer workers the chance to work where they need to be, and not where they are told to go to, it completely transforms their view of the company, they are more productive,” IWG CEO Mark Dixon said in an interview with CNBC. “If they can work at an office near to where they live or near to where they need to be, it’s totally transformational.”
Lower Attrition Rates
Cutting out commutes and letting people work from home not only makes them happier, it may keep them with companies longer.
In the same Global Workplace Analytics study, they found that 95% of employers surveyed believed that telework has a strong impact on employee retention, with 46% of employers surveyed saying they believed that allowing remote work has already reduced attrition.
With the money companies spend on recruiting and training a new hire — the study estimated that losing a valued employee can cost an employer between $10,000 and $30,000 — it makes good business sense to allow telecommuting, at least part of the time.
It seems a bit counterintuitive. You would think that allowing people to work from home, where they’re surrounded by distractions and not under the watchful eye of a boss, would result in less productivity. But study after study has found that people who work from home are actually more productive.
As it turns out, offices have their fair share of distractions, and working from home can lead to more efficient employees.
In the largest study of its kind so far, Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom worked with a company that let him run an experiment on 500 of its employees. Half of them would spend two years working from home, while the other half would continue to work from the office.
The results: A major win for telecommuting. The remote workforce in the experiment were not only more productive, they also took fewer sick days.
This wasn’t the only study that bore this out.
In the Owl Labs Report, they found that the number one reason people chose to work remotely wasn’t to remove the commute (that was number two), but rather because working from home allowed them to focus better and be more productive.
Remote work was also good for their health: 45% of remote workers from the study said they got more sleep, and 35% said they exercised more than when they commuted to work.
Challenges for a Remote Workforce
Telecommuting does have its challenges and pain points. While workers may be more efficient when working from home and can take time saved from a commute and channel that into being productive, they’re also at risk of feeling disconnected from their company culture.
These challenges are important to understand, not only for companies looking to implement a remote workforce, but for employees starting a job telecommuting. They might not always be obvious either.
Working from home can be wonderful, but it can also be isolating. While avoiding a commute is wonderful, some remote workers find that they miss the camaraderie of an office setting. Most people need human interaction, even if it’s just a wave hello in the morning or a smile over coffee.
The best way to combat loneliness for remote workers is to simply get out of the house. One day a week in a coffee shop or even a walk around the neighborhood can break up the monotony of a day. More and more remote workers are also renting from coworking spaces to get human interaction. (More on that shortly.)
Management can help, too. In The Harvard Business Review, they argue that managers should try to video conference whenever possible. Managers should also carve out time with remote workers to simply have small talk, reserving the first few minutes of calls and video conferences with remote workers to simply chat.
“You should talk about the things you usually talk about at work— weekend plans, kids, pets, or last night’s big game,” said Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD. “Encourage your direct reports to do the same with their remote colleagues. This social bonding builds essential empathy, trust, and camaraderie.”
Feeling Passed Over and Disconnected
One of the biggest fears that remote workers have isn’t about a decline in their productivity, but rather that their productivity won’t be noticed by their boss. While in-office employees have ample time to interface and interact with bosses, remote workers can often feel disconnected.
In an article in Forbes magazine, Barbara O’Malley of Exec Advance LLC argues that managers should pay more attention to remote workers, especially early on in their time with the company.
“Engage your remote workers on a daily basis through some kind of communication,” O’Malley writes. “Use multiple channels to communicate. Then, plan a regularly scheduled face-to-face meeting. This can be weekly, monthly, or annually, and could be combined with a training or coaching program. This constant interaction and engagement will help remote workers feel included in an important aspect of the organization.”
Another concern among remote workers is the belief that they are placing a ceiling on their careers by working remotely. While they may be just as productive as in-office workers, remote employees are often concerned that they won’t be considered for management roles because they don’t have an in-office presence.
Feeling Burned Out
Some remote workers find it difficult to shut off at the end of the day. When your home is your office, it’s hard to ever feel totally disconnected from your work.
Also, employees can feel indebted to bosses who allow them to work from home and feel guilty for getting to skip out on the commute that other workers have. These feelings can lead to remote workers overdoing it. While office workers can shut off and leave for the day, ignoring emails or work demands until they get in the next day, remote workers can struggle to separate work life from home life.
We’ll discuss ways that remote workers can combat this, especially when working from home, in the next section. But again, management can do its part.
According to O’Malley, manager should “set up work-from-home guidelines, such as emails must be responded to within 24 hours, use text for urgent matters, and no calls between certain hours to make sure teammates are not working around the clock.”
People who work remotely work in all sorts of ways. Some people can just plop down on the couch and work a full, productive day. Most need to create an environment that’s conducive to work or leave their home to find a place where they can get things done.
Most Remote Workers Work From Home
An important thing to know about remote workers is that the vast majority work from home. In the State of Remote Work 2018 Report by Buffer, they surveyed over 1,900 remote workers, and found that 78% of those surveyed used their home as their primary workspace. (The other answers: 9% rented an office, 7% used a coworking space, and 5% said they worked from a cafe most of the time.)
It’s a big number: Nearly 80% of remote workers surveyed used their home for telecommuting. It makes sense — working from home is both convenient and saves cash. But working from your home also comes with risks. Household distractions are real, and we’ve already shown the isolating effect of being home alone all day while you work.
Carving Out a Space
When working from home, experts believe it’s vitally important for remote workers to carve out a physical space. This not only gives remote workers a place to work, it gives them a line of demarcation that can help them step away from their work at the end of the day.
Even for workers who can’t afford a home office, having a set area to work in — a special seat at the dining room table, a desk next to your bed — is hugely beneficial to work efficiently from home.
Experts also argue that along with creating a physical space, remote workers should create an emotional space. They argue that establishing a routine in the morning can help people who work from home enter the appropriate headspace to get work done.
In an article for Business.com, Carolyn Smurthwaite writes that people who work from home should shower and get dressed before work, even if they’re only moving a few feet away to start their day.
“Act like you’re going into work,” Smurthwaite writes. “Just because you aren’t leaving your house, doesn’t mean you need to look like you just rolled out of bed. In order to work most efficiently think of your home office as an office environment. After designating your workspace, your next step to make this distinction is to look the part.”
The Rise of Coworking Spaces
As remote work grows, office spaces are springing up to cater to telecommuters. Coworking spaces are office buildings that rent out private offices, desk space, or even just general memberships for remote workers, small businesses, and freelancers.
An industry trend study by Coworking Resources found that “in 2018, an estimated 2,188 spaces were opened worldwide, out of which almost 1,000 were in the US. This year the coworking space market size is expected to reach 696 openings in the US, many of them in states and cities with budding startup cultures.”
Coworking spaces have various benefits for remote workers who can not only use the coworking space as an office, but as a chance to network.
In an article in Entrepreneur, Ann Smarty makes the argument that “coworking provides opportunities to observe and learn from colleagues who value their autonomy and often share other values, too.”
And, vitally, it can combat loneliness: “Working at home can have an isolating effect after a period of time,” Smarty writes. “Coworking is an easy fix. Working amidst others can lend a sense of camaraderie, even when you’re creating alongside complete strangers.”
They come with flexibility, too, as workers can use the space as often or as little as needed.
Resources for Remote Workers
Remote work is clearly on the rise in 2020, and if you’re one of those remote workers (or managing them), you may be looking for ways to maximize your productivity and combat challenges that telecommuters face. Below are some resources that can be valuable to anyone who is trying out remote work or who wants to become more efficient while telecommuting.
Finding a Place to Work
Remote workers looking to break out of the cycle of working from home can try the website WorkFrom.co, an online resource that shows the best public places to get work done in a given neighborhood.
The website gives users a map of nearby public libraries, coffee shops, and restaurants with strong Wi-Fi. For people who are struggling to be productive working from home, the website can give them new places, which can help them break out of their rut.
Software to Fight Distractions
While remote workers overall are just as productive as office workers, there are resources that help workers who struggle with distractions to stay on task.
For workers looking to zen out, they can try OmmWriter, a distraction-free writing software that takes over your computer, limits notifications, and gives workers soothing music to type to.
Clockify is free, time-tracking software that lets teams keep tabs on how long they’ve worked on certain projects. This software is extremely popular with freelancers, as well as teams of all types that are looking to stay on-task and make sure team members are contributing a fair amount.
The State of Remote Work
Remote work is growing steadily and becoming a staple in the global workplace. Rapidly improving internet speeds have aided this rise, but changing perceptions about remote work have been just as important. Study after study has shown that remote workers are just as productive as traditional office workers if not more so.
That being said, remote workers do face challenges. Understanding those challenges, as well as the benefits, will allow businesses to get a better understanding of the state of remote work in 2020 and to decide whether telecommuting makes sense for their business.