The Corner

Economy & Business

Remote Work Won’t Work

(jacoblund/Getty)

Slack, the online messaging company, will allow most of its employees to permanently switch to remote work. So will Twitter. Facebook envisions up to half of its workforce eventually working remotely. Nationwide will close offices around the country this fall, moving many employees to parament telework. “The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,” according to the CEO of Barclays.

I’m skeptical.

The future of remote work is over-hyped. Companies that are rushing to move their workforces remote are making a mistake. There is some preliminary evidence and a widespread perception that remote work is working, but that evidence takes place in a context — a once-in-a-century global pandemic — that will not be enduring. Managers shouldn’t overlearn lessons from the pandemic. Why won’t remote work work? I discuss in my latest Bloomberg column.

This spring, managers were nervous that productivity would tank during the shutdown because telework would be unsuccessful. Employees would slack off during the day without colleagues and supervisors nearby, and given all the distraction of home.

Surely this anxiety was communicated inside businesses, and workers got the picture. Many likely ramped up their effort during the shutdown to prove to their bosses that they were still valuable as teleworkers. With the rest of the world shut down, too, people had to put off a lot of the functions of normal life, not just going out for social reasons, but also for important things like doctor’s appointments. Add to this workers’ worries about recession-driven layoffs, and it’s no surprise that many managers see productivity increases.

Similarly, people — including me — who are surprised by how well remote work is working should remember that teleworkers mostly already know each other. That wouldn’t be true if the trend continues.

Productivity is something of a black box, but anyone with coworkers knows the important role that emotional intelligence plays in getting work done. Being able to read someone’s body language, tone of voice, or slight changes in facial expression is often critical to work in a team setting.

It is hard to learn how to interpret these idiosyncratic forms of expression outside of the social setting an office provides. Likewise, trust, group cohesion and collegiality develop in large part through the informal interactions that occur in workplaces throughout the day.

Check out my column for my full argument. Your comments are very welcome.