After a year of Working from Home where are we going from here?

In February 2020, we were just realizing we'd need to work from home for a while. We had no idea just how drastic the change would be. Now, a year in, thanks to the Coronavirus vaccines, we're beginning to think about returning to the office. Or, are we?

Remote worker  >  A woman works from home
Valentin Russanov / Getty Images

Last year, at this time we were just getting our minds around the idea we'd be working from home for a while. Little did we know what was coming! Now, a year into the pandemic, by Upwork's survey of a thousand hiring managers, 41.8% of the American workforce remains fully remote. And, many of them will be staying on their kitchen table desks through 2021.

From the top down you might not get that impression. For example, Barclays Plc CEO Jes Staley, at the World Economic Forum said, "I don't think it's sustainable." While,  Mary Erdoes, JPMorgan Chase's asset- and wealth-management boss, said everyone in the corporate world, feels working from home "is fraying, it's hard, it takes a lot of inner strength and sustainability every single day to continue to focus and to not have the energy you get from being around other people."

Other experts, however, see many white-collar workers never going back to the traditional office. Ed Stevens, CEO at Preciate, a company whose platform is designed to help businesses and teams virtually replicate in-person mixers, predicts at least 1 in 5 (20%) of workers will work from home at least one day a week. Before the pandemic, only 5% of the American workforce worked full-time from home; that figure is expected to at least double to 10%.

Remote working boost productivity

A business executive survey conducted by a top accounting firm, EisnerAmper found 60% of business executives intend to make remote work permanent. Only 8% said they did not intend to let employees continue to work virtually. That's because 70% of respondents said productivity either increased or stayed the same virtually, while only 14% saw decreased production.

Those numbers agreed with my interviews; I found few executives wanting to return to the corner office with their staffers. Instead, most find themselves pleased as punch at how successful working from home (WFH) has been for their businesses.

Why? There are lots of reasons. Number one with a bullet is that contrary to fears that people would turn into lazy slugs while working from home, most executives are reporting their staff are more productive than ever.

Danny Bluestone, CEO of Cyber-Duck, a major UK-based digital marketing company, flat out said, "I would be more than happy to continue my remote working employees since the productivity of the employees was up by about 20% and more revenue started coming in."

It's not just companies that already had one foot in the internet that have done well. Tal Shelef, realtor and co-founder of Condo Wizard, a top Canadian residential real estate firm said, "As the large-scale shift pushed us to work remotely, it is surprisingly less stressful now--the long hours sitting in traffic, too close for comfort cubicles where each others' business is everyone's business and endless office meetings. Despite difficulties in collaboration, this scheme works well in our company. We actually have a significant increase in productivity so we will probably continue to support this scheme."

How much of an increase in productivity? Pete Sosnowski, co-founder of ResumeLab, reported, "Based on our metrics, it is clear that our telecommuting employees are 20% to 25% more productive than when they were office-bound."

Anthony Brooks-Williams, CEO of HVR, an independent provider of real-time cloud data replication technology, agreed. Brooks-Williams said his company went from 40% to 100% remote "to protect the health and safety of our employees, but I've found that it's been working well. If you have the right people on the right projects, and you provide the tools and support, you'll find that productivity increases."

Why are people working better from their living rooms?

Manny Vetti, co-founder of Back Taxes Help, LLC, explained that while he "was nervous that some people were going to be upset, because they don't have the space to work or others have pets and kids that they don't want to interrupt their jobs." In the event, "everyone's been grateful for the opportunity to work from home. I've even had some employees who are working remotely from different cities since they're able to. I think it works, because people have more freedom to choose how they want to work. You get to dress comfortably, do what you need to do, and you're not bogged with meetings."

Others were concerned their workers would laze about their homes. Tim Denman Chief Marketing and Sales Officer at ServGrow, a field service software company, worried, "I truly thought my business was going to fail when we were all forced to start working remotely. I was so used to going into the field to conduct business, and now I'm conducting business from home. To my surprise, my company has been doing well. What's been working for me is allowing my employees to do what they need to do without micromanagement. I place my trust in them. As long as they do their work on time, I could care less if they're watching Netflix on the job. The only thing that hasn't worked well is how our appearances have degraded over these virtual meetings. But that's also okay too, because I don't know if they know I'm just wearing pajama pants beneath my suit!"

Let's get specific. Kim Chan, Founder and CEO of DocPro, an online legal firm, reported, "Most employees working remotely outperform my expectations. We have been remote working since March, and we found that our employees are just as productive as working in the office." Why? Chan listed:

  1. The workers save on traveling time, which allows them to spend more hours doing productive work.
  2. There are fewer unproductive meetings where everyone is asked to attend for the sake of attending. We now only have Zoom meetings when it is absolutely necessary and invite only the essential parties.
  3. The employees are given more flexibility on when to work so long as they can meet their weekly targets. Some of them would spend the day taking care of their family and work harder in the evening to make up for the lost time. So they actually get to produce more.

To make this work, you need the right tools and approach since many of us will still be working from home until retirement. Simply switching to working from home doesn't mean that things will go well for your company and employees. It takes work. For example, time management can be a problem.

Cathy Reisenwitz, Head of Content at Clockwise, a company that optimizes employee calendars has found workers from home are definitely busier. They're working longer hours and spending more time, 29% in team meetings and 24% more time in one-on-one meetings. However, these meetings seem to be more productive than the face-to-face meetings that dominated in the office get-togethers.

Still, EisnerAmper's survey showed over half of executives had trouble with team building. Over half of them thought team building was their biggest challenge.

Many executives mentioned that improving communications with online discussion and video-conferencing programs such as Slack, Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams has been helping with team building and communications. For example, Sean Chou, CEO of AI automation company, Catalytic, said, "through our own platform as well as other tools such as Slack and Zoom, we keep connected and ensure the flow of work isn't disrupted. We plan to stay remote-first even after the pandemic is behind us. I have personally enjoyed the increased productivity from fewer distractions and no commute."

Others are finding themselves turning ever more to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) programs to get work done. G Suite and Office 365 were frequently mentioned and the idea of switching from traditional PCs to Desktop-as-a-Service approach is gaining traction. For instance, Chan remarked her business is formalizing its SaaS use. "We have been using Trello to assign tasks to people, Airtable to keep track of the tasks, and Google Docs to collaborate on the documents."

Chan's firm, and others, are moving to cloud services for several reasons. First, SaaS and DaaS cut down on on-premise technical support needs. Another reason is it's easier to standardize on cloud-based programs than standalone software programs. Google Docs is Google Docs no matter whether you're running it from a smartphone or a Linux desktop.

Finally, one last major reason why many companies are in no rush to go back to the office is they're saving money from not paying for commercial real estate. Commercial real estate agencies worry, with reason, that workers will never come back to urban offices.

Will we ever go back to the office?

Wealth management company, RIA Advisors', office real estate market analysis concluded, "WFH policies are creating ghost areas in dense office cities like San Francisco and New York."  Building security firm, Kastle Systems' weekly reports show New York City has an average occupancy rate of just 15.9%. "Good news for companies seeking to cut office costs; awful news for office real estate businesses."

Of course, not everyone loves this work from home future. Gaurav Dhillon, CEO of enterprise integration company SnapLogic must "admit as a 'Management by Walking Around' fan, I loved catching up with people in the office, tried very hard to sit down for lunch with someone new when we had lunch in the office, and always kept an open door. Still, while Dhillon misses those days, and while there's nothing like working together, "this shelter in place has reminded us that Andy Grove's seminal management book title was the correct one: High Output Management. It's about output and with the collaboration and video platforms we now have; the nature of work - given a big push by the pandemic - has changed forever."

Only a handful of leaders, however, really dislike the WFH office. Most were not able to articulate why though. My sense is that they simply liked the old way of doing things. There was also a sense that middle-managers were nervous about having less of a role to play in the new business world. 

The only one who was able to explain his position was Charles McMillan, Founder of Stand with Main Street, a business incorporation company. McMillan doesn't recommend allowing employees to work from home. "If it weren't because of the pandemic, I would instead prefer my staff to work in the office. There is just too much information that I'm not comfortable going outside the premises of my company. On top of that, not everyone is suited for working remotely. Some people can concentrate more while working in the office."

In addition, while others seem happy with WFH productivity, McMillan finds "Productivity to be a significant concern. I observed that many employees become too relaxed and don't work as much when they are at home. There is also a tendency for them to do other things while working, like taking care of their kids or doing errands in the house."

Still, while a few executives aren't happy with WFH, the vast majority are embracing the WFH future. Indeed, as the BBC recently reported, some workers are finding business success not from an office or from home, but by working from bed.

Sosnowski agreed, "We surveyed our employees and most of them said they would continue to work from home indefinitely if we gave the green light. Seems our employees like the PJs all day option!" So, in 2021, get ready to say good-bye to the business suit and tie and hello to the business PJs. We are not going back to the old way of work.