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The remote work conundrum: Employees want it, but is it good for them?

Workers want the freedom to do their jobs where they choose, but is it good for them, or employers?Knut/Adobe Stock/Knut - stock.adobe.com

Office workers don’t just like doing their jobs remotely, they’re demanding it. They swarm postings for remote roles on LinkedIn and threaten to quit if they lose the autonomy they’ve come to count on. But job stress is at an all-time high, according to Gallup. And a January survey by the opinion analytics platform CivicScience found that remote workers were twice as likely to be unhappy as those in the office, with discontent particularly high among Gen Z respondents.

While inflation and massive layoffs in the tech sector are surely contributing to this unrest, workplace analysts say the rise in virtual work is also playing a role. As the boundaries between work and home blur, many are working longer hours while their connections with co-workers weaken. Tensions are rising among employees who aren’t allowed to work from home, and those who are remote are more likely to worry about being laid off. There is also a growing fear that these flexible arrangements will not last, as companies such as Disney and TikTok tighten the reins and the share of remote job postings falls.

With 58 percent of American employees able to work remotely at least once a week, according to McKinsey & Co., we asked experts to weigh in on the conundrum: Workers really want the freedom to do their jobs where they choose, but is it good for them, or employers?

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An illustration of people remotely working in different locations. Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said he believes remote work will continue shrinking. Nuthawut/Adobe Stock

Peter Cappelli, management professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Future of the Office”

At the height of the pandemic, people were grateful to have a job and to be safe at home. And employers reassured them, “We’re all in this together.” It really reset expectations of what work could be. But it didn’t last. So it’s not surprising remote work is no longer the birthday party it was in the beginning. The trust employers were forced to place in their workers has faded. You see a lot of discussion about the increased use of tattleware, where you’re monitoring employees when they’re working at home. And the experience is different for everyone. If you’re a really busy person with kids, remote work is a godsend. But if you’re a young person beginning your career, it’s not such a picnic.

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A car company executive told me they looked at the productivity of remote call-center workers and found it was about the same as for those in the office. But without the social ties that make people stick around, turnover for remote workers was higher. And training took longer. So they brought everybody back.

I think remote work will continue shrinking. It may come down to employers being much more flexible: People are generally expected to come to the office but can work remotely when they need to.

An illustration of two people working remotely on their laptops. Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor, said employers need to build new capabilities for hybrid work.Priya/Adobe Stock/priya - stock.adobe.com

Tsedal Neeley, Harvard Business School professor and author of “Remote Work Revolution”

Companies rushed into remote work, and then into hybrid work, without changing their cultures. Employers aren’t adapting how they bring in new employees or training leaders to manage remote workforces. So, of course, it’s going to be less effective. Employers have to build new capabilities for hybrid work. Have new hires come to the office in person for a while; assign them a buddy; give them a list of colleagues they can reach out to. This is not going to happen organically. You have burnout because you don’t have the proper structures in place. These are the things that are getting enshrined into law in other countries: The right to disconnect, they call it.

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When you do this right, it really works. But most employers are almost in denial that work has changed forever. Workers don’t want to give up on this new way of living, but they’re hungry for thoughtful approaches to it. To me, this is a leadership failure. The chief executive of Salesforce recently said that remote workers hired during the pandemic aren’t as productive. But how is it that thousands of people are all underperforming?

An illustration of a videoconferencing screen. Bob Kelleher, the chief executive of The Employee Engagement Group, said he believes employee engagement has taken a hit because workers miss the culture, collaboration, and creativity that happens when you’re around other people.Vetriya/Adobe Stock/Vetriya - stock.adobe.com

Bob Kelleher, chief executive of The Employee Engagement Group

Employee engagement has dropped to its lowest point since 2015, and I think that has to do with the fact that employees are missing the culture, collaboration, and creativity that happens when you’re around other people. When COVID hit, I shut down our office in Burlington, and we’ve been remote ever since. I recently proposed finding a place to work together on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I could tell from their faces they didn’t like the idea. There was no smiling, no nodding. My employees have kids, and for them the flexibility outweighs everything. So I didn’t force it. Now we get together about once a month. Any time I notice their spirits are low, I’ll hold an onsite meeting. They reminded me recently that they haven’t had performance reviews in over a year. That told me that, even though I write books on leadership, I’m not doing a great job managing remotely myself. When you don’t see employees every day, you don’t hold them as accountable, and accountability is a key part of engagement.

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I don’t think we’ll ever see a model where people are driving through Boston traffic five days a week. That train has left the station. But telling employees to come in whenever they want isn’t working either. It doesn’t make sense for employees to commute to the office and pay to park if no one else is there.

An illustration of a mom holding her baby while working remotely. Erin Kelly, a professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said that when a woman takes a work call with her children in the room, she tends to feel more guilty than men do because she’s violating cultural expectations.SurfupVector/Adobe Stock/SurfupVector - stock.adobe.com

Erin Kelly, professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management

When we’re trying to understand if remote work is good for workers, the answer depends on which type you’re talking about. In a new paper I coauthored focused on German employees, we found that when the remote work is “replacement” work during regular hours, it results in higher levels of psychological well-being than being in the office full time. But when it’s “extension” work that bleeds into people’s personal lives, the opposite is true. Even if you enjoy your job, there’s a thin line between high engagement and over-commitment. “Extension” work is particularly harmful for women because they tend do more caregiving at home. When a woman takes a work call with her children in the room, she tends to feel more guilty than men do because she’s violating cultural expectations.

Prepandemic research shows that, of the 21 percent of Germans able to work remotely, more than half performed some level of “extension” work. That share is probably higher now. The challenge is setting boundaries and feeling it’s acceptable to set them, and that requires deliberate company policies.

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An illustration of a woman working remotely while sitting at a table. Laura Putnam, the chief executive of Motion Infusion, said that while flexibility in where and when we work can nurture our emotional well-being, remote work can also undermine our social well-being.Sasha Matbon/Adobe Stock/Sasha Matbon - stock.adobe.com

Laura Putnam, workplace well-being expert and chief executive of Motion Infusion

People overwhelmingly want to work remotely, but be careful what you ask for. We’re hard-wired for autonomy, and when we have flexibility in where and when we work, our emotional well-being is nurtured. The flip side is that remote work seems to be undermining our social well-being. A 2022 Microsoft study found that more than half of hybrid and remote employees have fewer work friends than when they were in the office more; this hurts employers, too, because work friendships increase engagement. The majority of respondents to a Forbes Health survey also said it’s harder to form relationships in general since the onset of the pandemic. If we’re not practicing being connected when we’re at work, we may be less practiced at it outside of work, too.

Returning to work may not be what people want, but it may be what they need. You may not be able to live in Spain if your office is in Atlanta, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have autonomy or flexibility. And supporting those needs is good for people as well as the bottom line. Maybe the compromise is moving to a four-day work week: We’ll come in every day, but we get a longer weekend.

Interviews have been condensed and edited.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her @ktkjohnston.