They Say Remote Work Is Bad For Employees, But Most Research Suggests Otherwise — A Behavioral Economist Explains.
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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. While they decry the negative effects of hybrid and remote work on wellbeing, they ignore the harm to wellbeing that office-centric work can cause. 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. What happens when we compare apples with 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 survey supports 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 was applied to questions regarding 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%. This further discredits the myth of 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 was found that fully remote workers had higher levels of meaning, self-actualization and happiness than those who worked in person. 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 alleged burnout crisis that remote workers face? Burnout is a real 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%. It’s obvious that this is 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. Due to the fact that we did more remote or hybrid work during the pandemic, it is possible to reduce burnout by having full-time or part-time remote work. This finding is consistent with peer-reviewed research and earlier surveys that suggest that hybrid and remote work can improve wellbeing.
Burnout is a problem for both remote and hybrid workers as well as in-office workers. Employers need to offer mental health benefits with fully remote options to help employees address these challenges. Despite being more beneficial for wellbeing, hybrid and remote work has its disadvantages. 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 people believe that email should be answered within three hours while others feel that it should take three days. Many people feel uncomfortable with disconnecting from email and not responding to messages 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 must establish and encourage clear expectations and boundaries. Establish policies and norms that govern the response time for different channels of communication. Also, clarify the work/life boundaries of 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. You might make it a policy that it occurs no more than once per week, unless there is an emergency. By setting clear expectations and boundaries, the biggest problem for your wellbeing in remote and hybrid work is work-life balance. 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.