The COVID-19 pandemic has mandated the shuttering of offices and the adoption of remote work policies. Yet, as the pandemic begins to ease, many companies are contemplating making remote work permanent for large groups of employees. Could we be heralding an era of work that is “Zoom forever”?

People who work remotely report increased productivity, more quality time with loved ones and reduced commute stress. A study by global HR agency Randstad Singapore revealed that 42 per cent of local respondents want a flexible work option after the pandemic, where they can choose to work either from home or the office.

The flexibility of remote work has also levelled some forms of inequality. Mothers who chose to quit their jobs to take care of family needs at home now have the option of re-entering the workforce as work is no longer office-bound.

Remote work can also boost the diversity of the workforce. Hiring managers are not limited by geography, and can consider applicants from all over the world.

However, we must be cautious in welcoming remote work as the new normal because it presents its fair share of challenges.

Straining mental health

Work’s invasion of employees’ private space has blurred the lines between work and rest. A survey of American workers who transitioned to remote work revealed that 70 per cent now work on the weekends, and 45 per cent regularly work more hours during the week than they did before.

Workers are increasingly feeling obligated to stay connected. They now reply to emails while attending to the crying toddler at home and pick up phone calls while making lunch.

As a result of work’s infiltration into the home, employees’ mental well-being is under great strain. According to the National University Health System's (NUHS) Mind Science Centre survey, 61 per cent of workers feel more stressed since they started working from home.

Psychologists are warning that remote work could escalate the current epidemic of loneliness and trigger a “social recession”. Research conducted more than a decade before the pandemic found that full-time telework increased loneliness over office work by 67 per cent.

Exacerbating inequality

Beyond the strain on our mental well-being, the ill consequences of remote work policies disproportionately impact some segments of the population.

People who can best work remotely tend to be university-educated and higher-income workers. Essential service workers like food operators, cleaners, and service staff face health risks at work whilst, for many, suffer income cuts due to reduced demand during the pandemic.

Mothers are also bearing a greater burden. According to a study by University of Pennsylvania sociologists, they are more than twice as likely as fathers to be primarily responsible for housework and child care. This physical and emotional labour takes a toll on their work. Researchers found that in just ten weeks of lockdown, female academics' productivity dropped by 13.9 per cent compared to that of their male counterparts.

New employees also face outsized challenges. For entry-level graduates, building strong professional relationships is crucial to long-term career success, but the lack of face-to-face interaction is a serious impediment. Remote work makes it more difficult to break into networks, get mentors and sponsors and land assignments that lead to promotions.

Humanising remote work

Despite the challenges remote work poses to mental well-being and to particular demographics, a growing list of companies, including large ones like Twitter and Google, have announced that telecommuting will persist past the pandemic. Workers, too, are contemplating quitting their job if their current company does not allow them flexibility to work from home, according to a CNBC report.

Given this trend, it seems that remote work will be a permanent fixture of the future. The challenge, then, will be to maintain the benefits that remote work brings, while finding ways to incorporate the spontaneity of human connection and interaction into our work day — without the crutch of Slack or Zoom.

As Microsoft’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Satya Nadella puts it, “digital technology should not be a substitute for human connection.” And if the CEO of one of the biggest technology companies says so, we would be remiss to ignore his warning.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicts that half of the company will permanently work remotely within 10 years. Source: The Guardian
For some, WFH has vastly improved their workday. Source: TikTok
For others, WFH has caused work to encroach into their personal lives. Source: ZULA
As a result, clinical psychologists are seeing an uptick in clients who are experiencing greater stress. Source: CNBC
Women, especially, bear a greater burden when WFH. Source: CNA
To Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, remote work is not a substitute for in-person work. Source: Amanpour and Company

The COVID-19 pandemic has mandated the shuttering of offices and the adoption of remote work policies. Yet, as the pandemic begins to ease, many companies are contemplating making remote work permanent for large groups of employees. Could we be heralding an era of work that is “Zoom forever”?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicts that half of the company will permanently work remotely within 10 years.

People who work remotely report increased productivity, more quality time with loved ones and reduced commute stress. A study by global HR agency Randstad Singapore revealed that 42 per cent of local respondents want a flexible work option after the pandemic, where they can choose to work either from home or the office.

For some, WFH has vastly improved their workday.

The flexibility of remote work has also levelled some forms of inequality. Mothers who chose to quit their jobs to take care of family needs at home now have the option of re-entering the workforce as work is no longer office-bound.

Remote work can also boost the diversity of the workforce. Hiring managers are not limited by geography, and can consider applicants from all over the world.

However, we must be cautious in welcoming remote work as the new normal because it presents its fair share of challenges.

Straining mental health

Work’s invasion of employees’ private space has blurred the lines between work and rest. A survey of American workers who transitioned to remote work revealed that 70 per cent now work on the weekends, and 45 per cent regularly work more hours during the week than they did before.

For others, WFH has caused work to encroach into their personal lives.

Workers are increasingly feeling obligated to stay connected. They now reply to emails while attending to the crying toddler at home and pick up phone calls while making lunch.

As a result of work’s infiltration into the home, employees’ mental well-being is under great strain. According to the National University Health System's (NUHS) Mind Science Centre survey, 61 per cent of workers feel more stressed since they started working from home.

Psychologists are warning that remote work could escalate the current epidemic of loneliness and trigger a “social recession”. Research conducted more than a decade before the pandemic found that full-time telework increased loneliness over office work by 67 per cent.

As a result, clinical psychologists are seeing an uptick in clients who are experiencing greater stress.

Exacerbating inequality

Beyond the strain on our mental well-being, the ill consequences of remote work policies disproportionately impact some segments of the population.

People who can best work remotely tend to be university-educated and higher-income workers. Essential service workers like food operators, cleaners, and service staff face health risks at work whilst, for many, suffer income cuts due to reduced demand during the pandemic.

Mothers are also bearing a greater burden. According to a study by University of Pennsylvania sociologists, they are more than twice as likely as fathers to be primarily responsible for housework and child care. This physical and emotional labour takes a toll on their work. Researchers found that in just ten weeks of lockdown, female academics' productivity dropped by 13.9 per cent compared to that of their male counterparts.

New employees also face outsized challenges. For entry-level graduates, building strong professional relationships is crucial to long-term career success, but the lack of face-to-face interaction is a serious impediment. Remote work makes it more difficult to break into networks, get mentors and sponsors and land assignments that lead to promotions.

Women, especially, bear a greater burden when WFH.

Humanising remote work

Despite the challenges remote work poses to mental well-being and to particular demographics, a growing list of companies, including large ones like Twitter and Google, have announced that telecommuting will persist past the pandemic. Workers, too, are contemplating quitting their job if their current company does not allow them flexibility to work from home, according to a CNBC report.

Given this trend, it seems that remote work will be a permanent fixture of the future. The challenge, then, will be to maintain the benefits that remote work brings, while finding ways to incorporate the spontaneity of human connection and interaction into our work day — without the crutch of Slack or Zoom.

As Microsoft’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Satya Nadella puts it, “digital technology should not be a substitute for human connection.” And if the CEO of one of the biggest technology companies says so, we would be remiss to ignore his warning.

To Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, remote work is not a substitute for in-person work.
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