It comes in other names: telecommuting, telework or teleworking, work-from-home or working from home, homeworking, home-based job, mobile work or virtual work, distance working, work from anywhere setup, and flexible workplace. Remote work is fundamentally a work arrangement in which employees are not required to commute or travel to a place of work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably made remote work a solution to keep several businesses and non-profit organizations running despite issues in workplace accessibility. Of course, it is important to remember that remote work has been advocated by several employees and utilized by other organizations due to its numerous advantages.
Pros of Remote Work: Advantages and Benefits of Work From Home or Flexible Workplace Arrangements
Availability of Tools and Related Technologies
The prevalence of digital devices and related technologies have collectively promoted further the advantages of remote work. Advancements in consumer electronics to include the continuous introduction of powerful smartphones and tablet computers have provided an alternative to personal computers for performing computer-mediated tasks to include word processing, as well as sending and receiving messages using digital communication platforms.
Developments in internet connection speeds such as the wide availability of 4G and LTE connectivity, the introduction of faster 5G networks, and fiber-based broadband connection have powered further bandwidth-intensive tools and technologies. For example, cloud computing makes the information technology infrastructure of an organization remotely accessible to employees while information systems to include HRIS, CRM, and ERP digitize numerous critical businesses processes and activities.
Video conferencing services and applications such as Zoom Cloud Meetings, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams have made virtual meetings not only possible but also more productive and collaborative. Other single-license and subscription-based or software-as-a-service applications provide specific solutions to specific business requirements such as communication and collaboration, project management, and sales and marketing, among others.
Through the use of appropriate tools and technologies, an organization can function despite having the majority of its workforce working from their homes or in other remote locations. Employees can readily take advantage of work-from-home or flexible workplace arrangements using resources that are typically available to them by default: personal computers, smartphones, and wired or wireless internet connection.
Expanded Talent Pool and More Job Opportunities
A business with a traditional work arrangement would be limited to hiring or contracting individuals within or nearby the vicinity wherein they operate. This can be problematic if a particular geographic location either does not have enough talent pool or has a competitive local labor market. Implementing capabilities for remote work arrangement opens possibilities for organizations to reach talents beyond the limits of their geographic locations.
Employees and freelancers also benefit from the availability of virtual jobs. The internet is an easily accessible medium for them to find jobs that match their competencies and their desired pay without needing to consider workplace proximity. These individuals also have an option for choosing between being full-time employees working remotely at a particular company or as freelancers working for different clients. The option to have multiple works give freelancers multiple income streams and a certain degree of time flexibility.
There is an ongoing trend toward companies expanding their workforce capabilities by outsourcing remote independent contractors. A 2019 report by Upwork and Freelancers Union revealed that freelancing exceeded the GDP of some sectors and industries in the United States. Another 2020 report by Upwork also revealed that freelancing contributed USD 1.2 trillion to the American economy as more professionals are freelancing full-time and turning to independent work for economic opportunities amid the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Remote work enables companies to capitalize on the advantages of outsourcing to include cost reduction while accessing a larger talent pool due to the absence of geographic constraints. On the other hand, it provides individual professionals not only with a wider selection of jobs but also novel economic opportunities and intrinsic benefits to include work-life balance through better time management and a degree of job fulfillment, among others.
Cost Advantages to Both Employers and Employees
Another advantage of remote work centers on the cost savings to both employers and employees. Remember that organizations can reduce their workforce expenses by accessing a larger labor market or contracting freelancers instead of full-time employees. There are also cost reductions from not purchasing tools or equipment needed to perform tasks because most virtual workers have their tools of the trade to include personal computers and internet connection.
There are also cost savings from lesser operational and overhead expenses. Organizations can simply lease a smaller office space if most members of their workforce are in remote locations. Startup companies can opt to choose their home address their business address instead of expensive office space in commercial areas. The absence of individuals working onsite also means that there is less cost associated with utilities and consumption of other resources.
Data from numerous studies can paint a better picture of the cost-saving potentials of telecommuting. A 2009 paper from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania showed that 25 percent of corporate assets are invested in real estate, which represents 5 to 8 percent of gross sales or 40 to 50 percent of net income. Global Work Analytics also showed that the average employer can reduce USD 11,000 in costs per employee per year for every person who works remotely half of the time, and USD 10,000 per worker per year in real estate costs alone.
For individuals, there are considerable cost savings from not needing to travel to an office. There is no need for them to purchase a car and incur regular fuel expenses. Note that fuel prices in some cities can be very expensive. For those who do not have their own vehicles, there is no need for them to appropriate part of their salaries to cover regular transportation expenses. The cost of commuting is dependent on the proximity of the workplace from the residence of an individual. The farther the workplace, the higher the transportation cost.
A study by M. Beno published in the journal Frontiers of Sociology identified other expenses that are eliminated whenever individuals choose a flexible work or work-from-home arrangement. These include savings from not having to buy meals and coffees in commercial establishments. Food items available at home are cheaper. Expenses for childcare or buying work-related clothing are virtually reduced or eliminated in telework setups.
Other Benefits of Remote Work and Flexible Workplace
Telecommuting has additional benefits to the overall health and wellness of individuals. Not needing to travel to a workplace means saving time and energy that could be channeled to productivity or other non-work activities. Further, results of a 2020 survey by Mercer, a human resource consulting firm, that involved 800 respondents showed that 98 percent of them considered working from home as better, likely because of the absence of distractions in the workplace and conflicts from superiors and colleagues.
Equity in employment has also been made possible through remote work arrangements. Parents and caregivers of family members can pursue a career and earn a living while working from home. The same is true for individuals who have physical disabilities and cannot readily or comfortably travel to a workplace. People living in remote areas or locations far from cities can look for telework at the comforts of their homes, while retirees can remain productive members of society by being part of the labor force. Fully-employed individuals can augment their income by choosing online freelancing work in accordance with their preferred schedule.
Having capabilities to utilize tools and technologies for telecommuting can also be a source of competitive advantage for organizations. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the need to have plans and strategies for business continuity. Remember that continuity-of-operation and disaster preparedness strategies and tactics are also critical to organizations located in areas prone to calamities and other factors contributing to interruptions in operations.
There are also greater social and environmental advantages and benefits to telecommuting or remote work. Several studies have revealed the positive impacts of work-from-home arrangements on reducing traffic congestion and traffic accidents, as well as lessening the pressure on transportation infrastructure. Reduced traffic means lesser greenhouse gas emissions and noise pollution from automotive vehicles.
Furthermore, in a book authored by Kate Lister, she noted that if 40 percent of the U.S. population opted to work from home half of the time, the country could save 280,000,000 barrels of oil while taking 9 million cars permanently off the road. A 2014 article from The Carbon Trust, a business-led publicly-funded organization that provides advisory roles to the government and business organizations, mentioned that the United Kingdom could save over 3 million tons of carbon pollution each year by increasing the number of employees working from home. The COVID-19 pandemic showed real-world results. A 2020 analysis by Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, revealed that the crisis temporarily reduced carbon emissions in China by a quarter.
Cons of Remote Work: Disadvantages and Limitations of Work From Home or Flexible Workplace Arrangements
Limited Applications of Remote Work Arrangements
Certain business activities within specific sectors or industries are not suitable for remote work for the simplest reason that they are labor-dependent. An example would be factories or manufacturing facilities that depend on manual labor or onsite human inputs. Other examples include warehouses or logistic sites, as well as distribution centers.
The aforesaid facilities will not run without having people onsite, and this is especially true for worksites that do not have tools and technologies for automation. Note that the cost of investing in building and deploying automation capabilities might be greater than the cost of maintaining traditional human labor.
Retail stores with large foot traffic are also not suitable for telecommuting. These worksites depend on numerous personnel to include individuals who run point-of-sales or checkout counters, employees tasked to manage the stockroom and the product display areas, dedicated customer relations and product information staff, and other administrative personally responsible for day-to-day operations. Self-checkout solutions have been implemented in some retail stores, but these are usually deployed alongside labor-dependent worksites. These solutions are also not suitable in stores that entertain large customers.
It is also worth mentioning that automation solutions can displace workers and potentially increase unemployment due to job obsolescence. This is particularly true in areas or countries with industries and sectors dependent on labor-intensive inputs, as well as those with a large proportion of skilled workers. Telecommuting and related innovations are undeniably limited to desk-based or white-collar occupations.
Can Negatively Affect Engagement and Morale
Another disadvantage of remote work centers on the adverse effects on the different aspects and facets of professional life. Working from home can be isolating. A 2020 review study by N. Karanikas and J. P. Cauchi noted that the absence of face-to-face interactions reduces the intensity of social relationships across the workforce, thus leaving employees feeling isolated. Organizations need to deploy specific tactics such as periodical on-site and off-site communications and opportunities for social interactions beyond work because isolation can decrease the motivation and productivity of individuals.
Results from a 2008 survey involving 261 teleworkers conducted by T. D. Golden, J. F. Veiga, and R. N. Dino showed that isolation negatively impacts job performances. It also concluded that face-to-face interactions increase interpersonal contact, connectedness, and trust. Another survey involving 394 respondents conducted by T. Maruyama and S. Tietze in 2012 revealed that 54 percent of teleworkers felt that they lost out on social interaction, and 52.5 percent felt they lost out on professional interaction due to their remote work arrangements.
The same study from Karanikas and Cauchi also mentioned the tendency of telecommuting to negatively affect work-life balance. Of course, while working from home or other related telework arrangements give individuals an opportunity to balance their professional lives with their personal lives, certain situations blur the difference between these two. Examples include employers becoming too intrusive and inconsiderate to the personal time and private lives of their employees, as well as when these employees feel compelled to overperform as part of their attempt at reducing the idea that they are doing less work than others.
Working from home can also be distracting. An exploratory study by L. Vyas and N. Butakhieo explained that young children and other family members could be a source of distraction. Furthermore, it noted that working at home can blur the boundaries between professional responsibilities and family life. Other sources of distractions are noises from the neighborhood and usual household routines performed by family members, as well as the tendency to overindulge in television or other forms of entertainment due to the absence of direct supervision.
Disadvantages of Remote Work for Organizations
Aside from its unsuitability in certain sectors and industries, as well as in specific business situations or organizational requirements, telecommuting has several organization-specific and management-centered disadvantages. Some employers are not too keen on implementing wide-reaching and permanent work-from-home or flexible workplace arrangements out of concerns that they would lose control over their employees and certain business processes.
There is also a need for employers to address specific human resource management issues unique to remote work. Remember that employees and contractors can feel demotivated and unsatisfied with their jobs due to isolation, lack of social interactions, and distractions at home, among others. A 2005 study by T. D. Golden and J. F. Veiga explored inconsistent findings regarding the job satisfaction levels of teleworkers. Their analysis revealed that satisfaction increases as the amount of time spent telecommuting increases. However, over time, as these individuals telecommute more, their satisfaction eventually decreases.
Information sharing and knowledge management can also be challenging when members of the workforce do not meet face-to-face and are spread across different locations. An article by B Azasu that appeared in the Journal of Property Management explained that face-to-face interactions allow the natural sharing of information and knowledge, such as when individuals take lunch together or go on coffee breaks. Y. Engeström also explained that the sharing of tacit information also often takes place in unplanned situations in which employees follow the activities of more experienced team members.
Security concerns also represent another drawback of remote work. Allowing employees to work off-site essentially means entrusting them to use critical resources and information without direct supervision. Examples include a possibility for unauthorized access to databases, higher possibilities of data leaks committed either by employees themselves or company outsiders who can readily access the computer system of a particular employee, vulnerability to hacking due to the absence of sophisticated communication security tools and protocols, and misuse of equipment and tools provided by the organization, among others.
The aforesaid disadvantages collectively suggest the need for organizations to have the necessary capabilities to implement remote work arrangements. Apart from having the necessary tools and technologies needed to empower an online-enabled workforce, they also need to have specific strategies and tactics, as well as internal processes and protocols, tailor-fitted to the unique characteristics and requirements of telecommuting. For example, keeping employees and contractors engaged and motivated requires human resource managers to develop and deploy action plans aimed at addressing the unique needs of teleworkers.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Allen, T. D., Golden, T. D., and Shockley, K. M. 2015. “How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 16(2): 40-68. DOI: 1177/1529100615593273
- Azasu, B. 2020. “Open-Ended: Office Space and Remote Working in the Age of COVID-19”. Journal of Property Management. 85:34
- Beno, M. 2021. “Analysis of Three Potential Savings in E-Working Expenditure.” Frontiers in Sociology. 6. DOI: 3389/fsoc.2021.675530
- Engeström, Y. 2008. From Teams to Knots: Activity-Theoretical Studies of Collaboration and Learning at Work. Cambridge University Press. DOI: 1017/cbo9780511619847
- Global Workplace Analytics. n.d. “Costs and Benefits.” Global Workplace Analytics. Available online
- Golden, T. D., Veiga, J. F., and Dino, R. N. 2008. “The Impact of Professional Isolation on Teleworker Job Performance and Turnover Intentions: Does Time Spent Teleworking, Interacting Face-to-Face, or Having Access to Communication-Enhancing Technology Matter? Journal of Applied Psychology. 93(6): 1412-1421. DOI: 1037/a0012722
- Hartman, S., Linneman, O., Pfnür, A., and Siperstein, B. 2009. “Realizing the Value of Corporate Real Estate Management.” Wharton Real Estate Review. 13(1):21-33. Available via PDF
- Karanikas, N. and Cauchi, J. P. 2020. “Literature Review on Parameters Related to Work-From-Home (WFH) Arrangements.” Queensland University of Technology. DOI: 13140/RG.2.2.18770.58569
- Lachapelle, U., Tanguay, G. A., and Neumark-Gaudet, L. (2017). Telecommuting and Sustainable Travel: Reduction of Overall Travel Time, Increases in Non-Motorized Travel and Congestion relief.” Urban Studies. 55(10): 2226-2244. DOI: 1177/0042098017708985
- Lister, K. 2009. Undress for Success: The Naked Truth about Making Money at Home. 1st ed. Wiley. ISBN: 978-0470383322
- Maruyama, T. and Tietze, S. 2012. “From Anxiety to Assurance: Concerns and Outcomes of Telework.” Personnel Review. 41(4): 450-469. DOI: 1108/00483481211229375
- Maurer, R. 2020. “Study Finds Productivity Not Deterred by Shift to Remote Work.” SHRM. Available online
- Myllyvirta, L. 2020. “Analysis: Coronavirus Temporarily Reduced China’s CO2 Emissions By a Quarter.” Carbon Brief. Available online
- The Carbon Trust. 2014. “Homeworking: Helping Businesses Cut Costs and Reduce their Carbon Footprint.” The Carbon Trust. Available online
- 2020. Freelance Forward 2020: The U.S. Independent Workforce Report. Upwork. Available online
- Upwork and Freelancers Union. 2019. Freelancing in America 2019. Upwork. Available online
- Vyas, L. and Butakhieo, N. 2020. “The Impact of Working From Home During COVID-19 on Work and Life Domains: An Exploratory Study on Hong Kong.” Policy Design and Practice. 1-18. DOI: 1080/25741292.2020.1863560