Senior organizational leaders often pride themselves on their firmly held beliefs. While this train of thought makes sense in a world where we have traditionally been recognized and rewarded for holding fast, today we face a rapidly changing global business landscape. Therefore, a more effective approach may be to question the methods we have relied on in the past and update our knowledge and beliefs with what we know now. 

Organizations have relied on the use of the traditional office without question — until now.

Despite advances in information and communications technology that have enabled organizations to shift traditional work away from place (where the work happens) and toward task facilitation (how the work happens), U.S. Census data shows that only 7% of Utah’s workforce worked entirely remote prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When more recent research indicates over 40% of full-time employees are working remotely at least one day per week, and another study suggests 37% of jobs in the U.S. could be performed entirely from home, this begs the question: Why were so few people working remotely before the pandemic?

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Why have we stayed in the office so long?

Findings from my research conducted at Utah State University show that the U.S. has been historically slow in adopting remote work, despite a steady increase in the practice before the pandemic.

According to one interpretation from The Economist, market failure could explain why the office remained dominant for so long. The office originated when the work world was concerned with processing great quantities of paper. The pandemic, like a monumental shock, snapped us out of old habits and moved the world of work into a new equilibrium.

Slack’s Future Forum research revealed a generational divide between older and younger executives. Leaders closer to retirement age with more experience working in offices prefer managing employees they can see in person. Their responses starkly contrast the younger leaders in their 30s and 40s who are more accepting of remote work. 

If you find yourself in opposition to remote work, consider this: What evidence would change your mind about remote work as a modern workplace practice? How did you form the opinion that the office is superior to remote work? Would you believe differently if you had been born in a different time or place?  

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When Jeff Bezos said, “Your margin is my opportunity,” he was suggesting that Amazon could provide better prices by eliminating the added costs attached to the retail supply chain. Regardless of the work environment (e.g., on-site, remote, or hybrid), employees are the lifeblood of every organization. Therefore, amid the drastic technological advances and dynamic shifts in work cultures and environments, employee retention has become crucial for organizational success, especially here in Utah.

Given employees’ documented preference for remote work and its connection to retention, could your office be your competitor’s opportunity?

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Remote work is sticking

In a study on remote work adoption conducted in November of 2020, my research team and I not only confirmed the statistically significant increase in remote work in response to the pandemic, but we found that most U.S. managers had a positive experience implementing the practice involuntarily.

In another study of over 30,000 Americans, researchers at Stanford University and the University of Chicago developed evidence supporting five reasons why remote work will stick beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • On average, people had better experiences with remote work than expected.
  • The average worker has invested 15 hours of learning time and $561 on in-home equipment for remote work. 
  • Reduced commuting time and employee fear of mingling and proximity to others add support to the remote work shift.
  • The number of U.S. patent applications that advance remote work technologies more than doubled from January to September 2020, raising quality and efficiency.
  • Many workers report higher productivity when working from home during the pandemic than in the office before the pandemic.

What’s the employees’ choice? 

As some leaders like Netflix, Apple, Tesla and Goldman Sachs are calling for a return to the office, others like Adobe, Spotify, Twitter and Airbnb have gone fully remote or hybrid.

Given that employees have proven their productivity working remotely (Goldman Sachs reported record profits with a primarily remote workforce), they are resisting management’s return-to-office orders. It’s not that employees never want to come back to the office; they do want to work from the office, but they also want to work from home.

Ultimately, it’s not about remote work. Employees care more about flexibility. For this reason, a Gallup poll reported that 34% of the workforce wants to work remotely permanently.

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No remote work option? Get ready for goodbyes

Organizational leaders who do not embrace some form of hybrid-remote work risk losing top talent. While the knee-jerk reaction for many leaders is to criticize remote work, noting its documented challenges and drawbacks, the practice of remote work doesn’t care if you agree with it.

Gallup reported that 60% of employees said they would be “extremely likely” to look for other work opportunities if their employer decided not to offer remote work options some or all of the time. In the end, the data we have suggests employees who can work only in the office do not feel supported to do high-quality work or live their best lives. 

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If you still think your organization can’t adopt remote work because it feels incompatible with your work culture, I hate to tell you this, but maybe you never had a culture; maybe you just had an office.

In Utah’s competitive labor market, leaders must design the experience employees actually want on purpose, with purpose. As employees desire greater flexibility, leaders who ignore this crucial development by putting their heads in the sand will do so at their own peril. Employees had a taste of remote work, and they proved it works.

Paul Hill is a professor at Utah State University Extention, and he specializes in remote work research. | dennis hinkamp

Dr. Paul Hill is a professor at Utah State University Extension where he studies remote work adoption and develops educational programs.