An Employment Lawyer’s Take on Working from Home

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“I just can’t wait until things get back to ‘normal.’”

Did you hear this phrase as frequently as we did during the nascent stages of the pandemic? When work, school, socializing, eating out, and even religion shifted to a remote format, after a few weeks, many were eager to get back to business as usual—and in-person.

Yet as the touted “two weeks to flatten the curve” wore on for months and, for many, years, necessity demanded that life change drastically, and as we now see in many ways, irreversibly. Careers, caregiving responsibilities, addresses, economic status and even values changed. Many cannot envision going back to pre-pandemic ways, especially when it comes to work.

In this context, many employers are grappling with how to address continued remote and hybrid work arrangements. After weathering the pandemic, the Great Resignation, and so-called “quiet quitting”—and now seemingly perched on the precipice of a recession—business leaders are feeling the strain to move back toward “normal.”

Are Remote Workers Just “Phoning It In?”

In an effort to get back to business as usual, Amazon, Disney, JPMorgan, and Starbucks have recently set deadlines for their employees’ return to the office for all or most of the time. Disney CEO Bob Iger’s optimistic rationale for such a requirement is that “nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together.” Elon Musk summarized this sentiment by stating that remote workers only “pretend to work” and are otherwise “phoning it in.”

Surveys reflect that most managers agree with these attitudes and do not think workers work well from home. In one recent Microsoft survey, the vast majority of leaders responding (85%) reported that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are productive. In fact, only 12% of leaders report having “full” confidence that their teams are productive. Similarly, a Citrix survey revealed that global business leaders simply do not trust that their employees work as hard when they are out of their managers’ sight.

Productivity Paranoia is Unfounded

But are these presence-equals-productivity perceptions well-founded? Microsoft terms these attitudes “productivity paranoia.” In light of compelling data, productivity paranoia as it relates to remote work is grossly unfair to employees. Numerous studies and surveys, even some from the pre-pandemic era, have repeatedly shown that working from home results in an increase in productivity (on average between 6-13%), lower worker attrition (35-50%) and greater worker satisfaction. Mounting evidence reveals a trend that employees with flexible work locations fare better: remote and hybrid workers report better wellbeing and lower burnout than their in-office counterparts.

Why Should Employers Consider Keeping a Regular WFH Schedule?

A great workplace culture yields healthier and happier work environments, notably fewer employment-related legal claims, and overall better profit margins. Maintaining or integrating a remote or hybrid work schedule into your workplace culture can have numerous measurable benefits to your business and culture. Here’s why:

  • Remote and hybrid work makes employees happy, and happy employees are more productive.

Time and again studies have shown that workers are more productive and work harder when they are happier at work. And these workers also tend to be more loyal. Integrating remote and hybrid work options into your company’s culture will result in measurable benefits in the form of increased output and lower employee attrition, which is extremely costly to employers, especially in a tight labor market.

  • Remote and hybrid work permits and promotes more diversity in your workforce, and diverse workforces are more profitable.

Recent reports have shown that remote jobs increase a company’s ability to recruit and retain workers from underrepresented groups, including women, Latino, and Black workers. Remote work benefits workers with disabilities, too. More workers with disabilities, neurodivergence, and mental health issues were employed in 2022 than at any time pre-pandemic. Enabling workers to avoid commuting time and expenses, work in a flexible manner, and provide privacy to address medical issues that would otherwise be difficult to address in an office were all factors that likely contributed to this increase.

Remote work allows rural workers to participate in business in an unprecedented manner. No longer is living near a major metropolitan locale a requirement to work for many of the large organizations that are centered in those areas. Opening up the workforce to various underrepresented groups and rural workers means more diversity in the workforce, and this has numerous benefits for a business’ culture—and its bottom line.

  • Our lives will never be the same as they were pre-pandemic and work should reflect this.

The pandemic era forced the careful reconstruction of life outside of work: many assumed caregiving responsibilities in addition to work obligations. Many workers with significant health issues needed to work from home for their own protection as an accommodation.

The shedding of daily commutes, which had consumed on average an hour or more per day of a worker's time, allowed many workers to assume (either eagerly or out of sheer necessity) increased personal responsibilities. Employees living away from major metropolitan centers were able to work with employers they never imagined possible without transplanting their household to another state.

Employers also hired new employees during the pandemic era who began—and thus expect to continue—with a hybrid or remote work arrangement. Against the backdrop of evidence supporting that remote workers are productive and happier (measurably more so than their in-office counterparts), coupled with knowledge that employees' lives were carefully rebuilt around a remote or hybrid schedule, an employer's sudden demand for all or most work to occur on premises may appear unreasonable, even paternalistic.

Should We Do Away with Office Work Altogether?

In the Microsoft survey, 73% of employees reported that they needed a better reason to go into the office than just “company expectations.” Asking employees to commute into the office is asking them to give up their most precious resource—time.

With good reason, employees want in-office work to be something more than merely facetime for its own sake. In-office work is clearly necessary at certain seasons of the business cycle and the employment relationship. In-person onboarding, for example, can help set the tone for an employee’s relationship with the company. In-office meetings and outings can be critical for team-building and employee engagement. And in-office time can help overcome some of the pitfalls of remote work, including proximity bias (when managers treat workers who are visible or physically closer more favorably in terms of promotion and work allocation) and the loneliness and isolation that can accompany remote work.

With all of this in mind, employers should seek to use in-office work meaningfully wherever possible. Encourage teams to schedule in-office work on the same days to ensure in-person interaction. Use in-office days for key meetings and training. Even consider providing lunch or snacks as a further inducement to help your employees feel the commute to the office was worthwhile.

As you struggle with the question of continuing a work-from-home policy, let your guide be the notion that, ultimately, your decisions regarding remote and hybrid work are creating and contributing to your workplace culture.