Weekly Wonder: Remote work had many benefits long before it was meant to slow a pandemic

By Alex Hemmer
BU News Service

BOSTON — In light of COVID-19, employers all over the world have begun sending their employees home in favor of social distancing practices. Not long before the pandemic, however, many Americans saw the ability to work from home as a rare workplace benefit.

According to a study by Global Workplace Analytics, a research consulting firm in San Diego, the number of Americans working from home in 2018 had increased by 173% since 2005.

Even though the number of remote workers that year only made up 3.6% of the American workforce, a 2019 survey revealed that at least 80% of employees said they wanted to work from home.

While survey respondents indicated decreased stress as a major incentive, data by Global Workplace Analytics suggested remote work could benefit employers as well. Annual company savings could amount to almost $11,000 per employee due to lower office maintenance costs and reduced transportation reimbursement expenses. Additionally, the chances that an employee might be absent from work could decrease, subsequently promising higher employee retention in the long run. 

Remote work could also make a significant impact on the environment. An average company size of 500 employees who work remotely at least half a week could help reduce annual gas consumption by 100,000 gallons, annual oil usage by 5,000 barrels and annual greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 159 cars. 

For employees, this could also mean saving a total of 2 million vehicle miles per year that would have otherwise been used commuting.

Despite the promised benefits, not all employers are on board with the idea. The research firm suggests there has traditionally been a general discomfort among managers who might prefer keeping an eye on their employees in person. 

Employees at Microstrategy Inc., an analytics software company in Virginia, are reportedly still being expected to show up to the office amid the pandemic.

“If we wish to maintain our productivity, we need to continue working in these offices,” CEO Michael Saylor told the company’s 2,400 employees Monday. 

Yet, as a promising vaccine for COVID-19 has yet to emerge, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to encourage social distancing practices, leaving many workplaces and even schools with no choice but to find a way to take activities online.

Research has projected that the number of Americans working from home will increase significantly once fears of the virus have settled down, estimating a boost of at least 25%.

Meanwhile, the more time people spend behind webcams at home, waiting for the green light that tells them they can return to their offices, the more the workforce may find itself acquainted with a new kind of normal, known to some as the future of work.

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