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In our opinion: Brace for a future of working from home

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks about “News Tab” at the Paley Center, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 in New York. The company announced on Thursday it will help portions of its workforce transition to remote work over the next few years.
AP

Facebook on Thursday became the latest company to join the likes of Twitter and Nationwide Insurance in giving large portions of their employees the option to work from home, possibly forever. We expect most of Utah’s businesses won’t make such a drastic leap, but they should still glean insight from these national giants: Prepare now for a future of telework.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies to experiment with remote working, some have seemingly adjusted better than others. Fortunately, Utah’s public workforce wasn’t completely caught off guard.

In 2018, the Utah State Board of Education released guidelines allowing its employees to begin remote working as needed for the individual and their position. The goal was to help employees’ work-life balance, improve productivity and morale and reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. Earlier that year, Gov. Gary Herbert signed the Rural Online Initiative into law, part of which provides for a Remote Work Professional Certificate, offered through Utah State University.

Last July, Lt. Governor Spencer Cox announced a statewide teleworking program for some 2,500 state employees. The decision was sparked by a successful pilot program in which 100-plus employees from four different state agencies worked at least three days a week from home. The results were staggering — the state recorded a 20% increase in the workers’ overall performance and a generous reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. The program also cut down on office space and the costs associated with their leasing and upkeep.

Many private companies in the state have followed suit and transitioned to remote work without much fanfare. Others have had to learn quickly, but learn they have.

Still some industries can’t — or won’t — be shifting to telework anytime soon. But for many, the pandemic-era shift to Zoom calls and livestreamed conferences may simply be a premature arrival of what was already on its way.

A burgeoning restlessness — particularly among a young workforce unshackled by the advent of digital technology — and the pursuit of companies looking to cut their overhead has now combined in an accelerated way. One Atlantic writer observes, “Even assuming that remote work does put a dent in productivity or employee unity, bringing employees back is a high price to pay for corporate culture.”

Remote work could be a major boon for working parents, especially mothers, as they maintain careers following childbirth. Even the flexibility of hybrid scheduling — some days in the office, some from home — could make a significant difference in reducing air pollution and road congestion.

But any future of telework should come with stringent safeguards for employees. An April report from NordVPN showed U.S. workers logging an extra three hours a day while working from home. Bloomberg captured already-stressed employees feeling mounting pressure to stay available at all hours. Some lamented the loss of their commute and the decompression it offers. Providing work flexibility shouldn’t come at the expense of employee morale.

In his landmark book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Harvard professor Clayton Christensen warns against neglecting quiet, growing disruptive forces. This may well be one of those moments for companies hoping to attract and retain the best talent. Bracing for a future of telework seems an appropriate response.