The Fairness Discourse of Remote Work

There's growing friction between remote work adoption and demand. Some businesses desire a return to office environments in a world where remote workers like their newfound work space.

About the author

Doug James

Cybersecurity Analyst, Product Perfect

Analyst and enthusiast in all things cybersecurity.

“The laptop class in living in la-la land,” said Elon Musk, when interviewed by NBC News in late 2023. Musk went on say, “Look at the (Tesla) cars...are people working from home here? Of course not. It’s messed up to assume that yes, they have to go to work, but you don’t.”

2023 Interview by CNBC

For Musk and other business leaders who pine for the days of traditional office environments, the primary issue isn’t productivity, it’s fairness. While compelled by many of Musk’s arguments but not quite agreeing that remote work was a “moral issue,” NBC journalist David Faber was quick to point out that, “It’s still going on. This battle is still happening.”

Factory, restaurant, and service workers, along with many others, simply cannot do their jobs remotely, while software developers and other computer-centric workers have little need for conventional office trappings. Still, those who can work from home want to retain that option, and businesses are responding. The percentage of U.S. companies favoring hybrid or remote working models increased from 51% to 62% over the course of 2023.

The worker’s tug-of-war

The benefits of remote working are obvious. Working from home eliminates the daily commute, saving workers valuable time and money, reduces worker stress, increases productivity, and allows employees to access work resources from any location. This last point is key, since spiraling home prices and rents have coincided with the upward trend in remote and hybrid workplace models. Despite a modest uptick in wages between 2022 to 2024, many workers have been priced out of the thriving markets most in need of their skills.

A recognition of the indisputable benefits for workers hasn’t put all business leaders on board. Remote work represents a major shift in the enterprise dynamic and “job philosophy” that has existed for decades. Should workers be required to come into a physical office environment? If so, why? Is it really necessary, or is it an outdated attempt to exert manager control for control’s sake? The benefits of in-person work cited by many employers include:

  • Improved employee control and monitoring
  • Improved communication
  • Team cohesion and culture building
  • Technology and cybersecurity benefits
  • In-person mentoring opportunities for new employees
  • Apples-to-apples performance evaluations

Google, Facebook, and other large tech employers have displayed only a temperate acceptance of remote work as a permanent condition, while enacting pay cuts for workers who relocate to lower cost cities. One anonymous remote worker for Google reported a loss of 10 percent to their paycheck in exchange for the two-hour commute to the office.

Blog, Travis Borer “Work From Home Realities: What Employers Hate About It”

There is, of course, limited justification for such pay cuts. The revenue and profit margins of a company such as Google would indicate they can afford to pay remote workers equally to on-site staff. Are the pay cuts being enacted to discourage remote working, reshape current trends, or simply reward on-site employees for being physically present and available? If work quality hasn’t declined, then the reasons for decreasing pay based on location/commute are arbitrary at best.

Despite the nebulous or questionable motivations, the policies adopted by Google have spread to many other Silicon Valley companies over the ensuing years. At least ten major tech employers required workers to spend three days per week or more in the office, as of January, 2024.

Remote work is better for business

Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of remote working is the fact that many (but admittedly not all) workers prefer it. In fact, many threaten to leave their place of work if permanent remote options are not offered. This is especially true for workers juggling school, family, and other commitments that simply won’t abide two hours per day of bumper-to-bumper traffic. While many companies still appear unwilling or unable to make the shift, the genie, as they say, is out of the bottle, so tech employers competing for increasingly rare talent will need to make concessions to survive. Recent surveys and statistics support this assertion:

  • 12.7% of full-time employees work from home
  • 28.2% have adopted a hybrid model
  • Approximately 22% of the workforce will be working remotely by 2025
  • 98% of workers express a desire for remote work
  • 93% of employers plan to continue remote job interviews
  • 16% of companies operate as fully remote businesses

The most likely and realistic outcome – at least in the short term – is a hybrid model intermixed with office and remote working options. It’s not feasible for every industry to remove office options, even in the computer industry. There are many tasks, even in the IT and software development realm, that require hands-on attention (literally and otherwise).

Among employed adults with a teleworkable job, % saying they are working from home. (Pew Research)

Mounting proof for remote working benefits

The data doesn’t lie. Both in reception and productivity, remote work has proven immensely beneficial. A 2024 survey study by Checkr, a background screening provider, identified various important trends: 68% of managers wanted remote work to continue, while 58% thought a significant portion of their workers would leave if a non-negotiable return-to-work (RTW) policy were enacted. These results underscore the importance of hybrid models, where concerns over lack-of-control and collaboration are tempered by the hybrid (1-3 days per week in-office) compromise.

Moreover, additional trends and studies point to the emergence of remote working as an intractable aspect of modern work culture. If nothing else, enterprise leaders should expect to incorporate remote working into their business model to some degree, either by experimenting with hybrid work, making exceptions for select positions, or weighing the pros and cons of a fully remote model.

The historical arc of remote work

Contrary to popular belief, remote work, and the unified communication tools that have exploded in popularity, did not begin during the COVID pandemic. In fact, the genesis of remote working can be traced back to the 1970s, when the OPEC oil embargo made commuting cost-prohibitive for many workers. As the internet, software tools, and hardware technology made virtual meetings and real-time video chats feasible in the ensuing decades, the viability of remote working continued to ascend. This recognition is important, since it dispels the notions of the pandemic as the sole purpose for remote models, and the inevitable return to pre-COVID days.

Source: Zippia

Much like the rapid development and deployment of vaccines, COVID accelerated a remote working trend that had already been growing for many years. Therefore, there’s no reason to assume this trend will once again shift downward. With the world’s state of unique unpredictability, having remote infrastructure in place keeps you ahead of the curve.

Improved or decreased performance?

While the rallying cry for remote working continues, one primary reason business leads continue push back is the perceived productivity loss. It’s an understandable concern, since managing things in the workplace is easier than in remote environments.

It’s also reasonable to assume the productivity data is still very new and context-driven. What kind of productivity is expected? What is it based on? If enterprises still measure performance with a traditional office mindset, then it’s likely their statistics may return a flawed perception. Furthermore, there’s more to remote working than the individuals managing tasks from home. Communication (or lack of), unfamiliarity with new tools/systems, and taking on different responsibilities like cybersecurity policies, are among the factors that can easily play into “productivity loss.” As the results begin to crystalize, it becomes clear that many dire predictions of unsupervised workers shirking their duties, double-dipping with second jobs, or becoming overly distracted by children and other homebound activities were largely unfounded.

Remote working productivity

The statistics above (per a Forbes article, “Remote Work Statistics And Trends In 2024” by Katherin Haan) are clearly in favor of remote work, but in a healthy paradigm... Here are a few that stood out to me.

  • 69% remote workers: burnout from digital tools.
  • 53% remote workers: harder to connect with coworkers.
  • $11,000 saved per employee by remote work.
  • Benefits: flexible hours
  • Challenges: burnout, connection.
  • 60% companies: monitor remote staff. Staff don’t like it.
  • 73% executives: remote workers are a security risk.
  • 32% hybrid workers: would accept pay cut for full remote.

Some recent studies report a slight decrease in productivity for remote workers, owed primarily to communication, motivation, and mentoring issues. At the same time, the increased time spent at work in a hybrid or remote model more than compensates for the deficiencies.

The long-term remote working solution

Like most business decisions and trends, those that will determine the future of remote working while resolving the discourse between staff and enterprise leads will come down to dollars and cents. Many enterprise leads long for a traditional office model where teams form organically and collaboration means more than just software tools. Increasingly, these aspirations are balanced by the fierce competition for talent and the emergence of remote working options as coveted perks. Recent survey results confirm the overwhelming percentage of workers favoring the continuation of remote options.

With the the productivity argument largely dispelled, the true reasons behind the wave of return-to-work policies are open to conjecture. They certainly include revenue lost by supporting functions like utilities, construction companies, and service industries that have relied on the traditional workplace model for over a century. Adoption of RTW policies by leading companies also created a “follow the leader” scenario with as yet unknown consequences. These conflicting priorities point to the hybrid model as an ideal long and short term solution for both employees and employers, with each able to reap the benefits of technology and contribute to sustainable practices without discounting the value of the human connection. Bending trees do not break, as the saying goes.

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