They Say Remote Work Is Bad For Employees, But Most Research Suggests Otherwise — A Behavioral Economist Explains.
The trouble with this stance is it decries the negative impact of remote and hybrid work on wellbeing, yet glosses over the damage to wellbeing caused by the alternative, namely office-centric work.
They say remote and hybrid work is bad for employee mental wellbeing and leads to a sense of social isolation, meaninglessness and lack of work-life boundaries. So, we should all go back to office-centric work — or so many traditionalist business leaders and gurus would have us believe.
For example, Malcolm Gladwell said there is a "core psychological truth, which is we want you to have a feeling of belonging and to feel necessary… I know it's a hassle to come into the office, but if you're just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work-life you want to live?"
These office-centric traditionalists back up their claims by referencing a number of prominent articles and studies about the dangers of remote work for mental wellbeing. For example, an article in The Atlantic claimed that "aggravation from commuting is no match for the misery of loneliness." A study by the American Psychiatric Association reported that over two-thirds of employees who work from home at least part of the time had trouble getting away from work at the end of the day. And another article discussed how remote work can exacerbate stress.
The trouble with such articles (and studies) stems from a sneaky misdirection. They decry the negative impact of remote and hybrid work on wellbeing, yet they gloss over the damage to wellbeing caused by the alternative, namely office-centric work. That means the frustration of a long commute to the office, sitting at your desk in an often-uncomfortable and oppressive open office for 8 hours, having a sad desk lunch and unhealthy snacks and then even more frustration commuting back home.
So what happens when we compare apples to apples? That's when we need to hear from the horse's mouth: namely, surveys of employees themselves who experienced both in-office work before the pandemic and hybrid and remote work after Covid-19 struck.
Consider a 2022 survey by Cisco of 28,000 full-time employees around the globe. 78% of respondents say remote and hybrid work improved their overall wellbeing. And 79% of respondents felt that working remotely improved their work-life balance. 74% report that working from home improved their family relationships, and 51% strengthened their friendships, addressing concerns about isolation. 82% say the ability to work from anywhere has made them happier, and 55% say that such work decreased their stress levels.
Other surveys back up Cisco's findings. For example, a 2022 Future Forum survey compared knowledge workers who worked full-time in the office, in a hybrid modality, and fully remote. It found that full-time in-office workers felt least satisfied with work-life balance, hybrid workers were in the middle and fully remote workers felt most satisfied. The same distribution applied to questions about stress and/or anxiety. According to a late 2022 Gallup survey, among workers who could work fully remotely, those who were fully office-centric had rates of burnout at 35% and engagement at 30%. By contrast, 37% of hybrid workers were engaged and 30% were burnt out, while for remote workers, the percentage for engagement was 37% and burnout at 27%. That further belies the myth about remote work burnout.
Academic peer-reviewed research provides further support. Consider a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health of bank workers who worked on the same tasks of advising customers either remotely or in person. It found that fully remote workers experienced higher meaningfulness, self-actualization, happiness and commitment than in-person workers. Another study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, reported that hybrid workers, compared to office-centric ones, experienced higher satisfaction with work and had 35% better retention.
What about the supposed burnout crisis associated with remote work? Indeed, burnout is a concern. A survey by Deloitte finds that 77% of workers experienced burnout at their current job. A survey by Gallup came up with a slightly lower number of 67%. Clearly, it's a problem, but guess what? Both of those surveys are from 2018, long before the era of widespread remote work.
By contrast, an April 2021 McKinsey survey found that 54% of those in the U.S., and 49% of those globally, reported feeling burnout. A September 2021 survey by The Hartford reported 61% burnout. Given that we had much more fully remote or hybrid work in the pandemic, arguably full or part-time remote opportunities decreased burnout, not increased it. Indeed, that finding aligns with the earlier surveys and peer-reviewed research suggesting remote and hybrid work improves wellbeing.
Still, burnout is a real problem for hybrid and remote workers, as it is for in-office workers. Employers need to offer mental health benefits with fully remote options to help employees address these challenges.
Moreover, while overall being better for wellbeing, remote and hybrid work does have specific disadvantages around work-life separation. To address work-life issues, I advise my clients, who I helped make the transition to hybrid and remote work, to establish norms and policies focused on clear expectations and setting boundaries.
Some people expect their Slack or Microsoft Teams messages to be answered within an hour, while others check Slack once a day. Some believe email requires a response within three hours, and others feel three days is fine.
As a result of such uncertainty and lack of clarity about what's appropriate, too many people feel uncomfortable disconnecting and not replying to messages or doing work tasks after hours. That might stem from a fear of not meeting their boss's expectations or not wanting to let their colleagues down.
To solve this problem, companies need to establish and incentivize clear expectations and boundaries. Develop policies and norms around response times for different channels of communication and clarify the work/life boundaries for your employees.
Let me clarify: by work-life boundaries, I'm not necessarily saying employees should never work outside the regular work hours established for that employee. But you might create an expectation that it happens no more often than once a week, barring an emergency.
By setting clear expectations and boundaries, you'll address the biggest challenge for your wellbeing for remote and hybrid work: work-life boundaries. As for other issues, the research clearly shows that overall remote and hybrid workers have better wellbeing and lower burnout than in-office workers working in the same roles.
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