With the current crisis, many thousands of employees in the UK are now working remotely, often with very little prior experience of the practice. Many face significant practical issues, with inadequate equipment or space, or being saddled with additional childcare responsibilities. Of course, it should be remembered that for many individuals it is not feasible to work remotely, and these people are either not able to work at all, or may be working in conditions where their health is endangered.
Some forecasters have predicted that we may be experiencing a tipping point for remote working, where it becomes the norm for many workers and firms. Yet, as I explore here, although the practice has been around since the 1970s, and has been facilitated by rapid advances in technology, its growth has stalled in recent years, with some firms seeking to bring employees back into the office. Since the practice first emerged, there has been considerable debate on the advantages and disadvantages of the practice, for individuals, firms, and for society in general.
In this post, I address the concept and history of remote working, and review research into the practice. I explore the reasons behind the rise of the practice, its benefits and drawbacks, and the factors preventing its more widespread adoption. In doing so, I highlight three key factors: technology, control and collaboration.
Context and definitions
Remote working was originally referred to as ‘telework’, or ‘telecommuting’, both terms coined by Jack Nilles in the 1970s. Lister (2016) defines telework as the substitution of technology for travel and telecommuting as the substitution of technology for commuter travel. Putnam et al. (2014) place remote working within the wider practice of flexible working, defining the latter as the opportunity to adjust the where, when and how of work. In this post, I refer to remote working as the practice of working for an employer from one’s own home, where this may be undertaken full-time or for part of the week.
A brief history of remote working
Allen et al. (2015) write that telecommuting first emerged in the US in the 1970s, the term coined in 1973 by Jack Nilles, an engineer working on projects for NASA. The idea at the time was to move work to workers rather than move workers to work in an effort to alleviate traffic problems and reduce energy consumption at a time of global oil crisis. Alvin Toffler, in The Third Wave (1980), predicted that telework could shift millions of jobs out of factories and offices into the home, with benefits beyond the reduction in commuting time and costs to include greater community stability and reduced pollution. Early academic studies highlighted the rising success of telework, and were followed by governmental efforts to promote its use. Allen et al. (2015) note that private companies in the 1970s began to realise that telecommuting could be useful in addressing workforce issues. Companies such as IBM began exploring work-at-home arrangements as a way to recruit and hire computer programmers, who were in high demand but short supply. The broader shift from a manufacturing to an information economy expanded the number of jobs that lent themselves to remote working, and, as the number of dual-income couples climbed in the 1970s and 1980s, telecommuting was also touted as an option for helping individuals manage work and family responsibilities. Improvements in technology helped to facilitate the trend. In Digital Nomad (1997), Makimoto and Manners predicted that the work of the future would be neither in the home nor in the office, but rather constantly on the move. They argued that access to the Internet and the shrinking of transistors would fuse information technologies and communications technologies, with their prediction coming true in the form of smartphones and similar devices.
How extensive is remote working?
A lack of consistency around definitions makes it difficult to quantify remote working precisely, with a range of figures reported. A 2014 survey by The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) suggested that 59% of US employers allowed for some form of telecommuting. Felstead and Henseke’s (2017) review of the UK Labour Force Survey in 2015 suggested that working away from a traditional office for at least one day a week increased from 13.3% of employees in 1997 to 17.1% in 2014. Utilising various US datasets and surveys, Lister (2016) reports that in 2014 3.6% of the US workforce worked at home half-time or more and that 43% of employees worked remotely with some frequency, and that in 2017, 56% of employees had a job where at least some of their work could be done remotely. Lister also cites a survey from 2019 finding that 80% of employees wanted to work from home for at least some of the time.
Lister also looks at the demographics of remote workers in the US, characterising a typical remote worker as college-educated, 45 years old or older, earning an annual salary of $58,000 while working for a company with more than 100 employees, with 75% of employees working from home in 2016 earning over $65,000 per year, putting them in the upper 80th percentile of all employees – home or office-based. Lister notes a 2016 sectoral analysis that found that the largest groups of remote workers were in professional, scientific and technical services; information; and finance and insurance sectors.
Is remote working now in decline?
Messenger and Gschwind (2016) note claims that the adoption of remote working has been stagnating or even declining in recent years, even as the spread of facilitating technology has accelerated. A few high profile examples tend to be cited as evidence. Allen et al. (2015) highlight media uproar in 2013 after Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned Yahoo employees from working from home, with the CEO stating that the ban was necessary in order to foster a collaborative, inventive environment. ‘I had heard from lots of people all over the company, who said “Hey, the fact that our team is distributed, or the fact that we sometimes have to stop and coordinate with someone from home, causes drag.” And so we said that, as a general principle […], we want people in the office.’ Sarabyn (2019) notes that Yahoo’s public justification was that, ‘the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.’ Wilkie (2019) adds that, in 2017, IBM announced that it wanted thousands of its workers back in physical offices. IBM also argued that the move would foster greater collaboration, with its Chief Marketing Officer explaining that, ‘There is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun when they are shoulder to shoulder.’
Reflecting on these developments, Sarabyn (2019) points out that high-profile firms revoking remote working (she mentions Yahoo, Best Buy, and IBM) were all in trouble at the time, where the decisions weren’t really related to the failure of remote working, but were a way for the companies to slash their workforces without having to officially lay employees off. Sarabyn cites one commentator who argued that, for Yahoo, the revocation of working from home was a clear sign that the company had ‘no decent way to measure the productivity and output of a worker.’ Poor connection and communication meant that, ‘there were all these employees [working remotely] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo.’ Sarabyn notes that calling workers back to the office did not appear to change Yahoo’s or IBM’s fortunes.
An overview of research into remote working
Remote working has attracted considerable interest from academics since its emergence in the 1970s. In this section, I provide an overview of recent research on the practice.
Remote working and the individual
Well-being, physical and mental health
Does remote working improve the well-being of the individuals undertaking it? Charalampous et al. (2019) find that empirical evidence on the association between remote working and employee well-being is not conclusive. They cite some studies finding that flexibility around work location is associated with greater work-life balance, job autonomy, and effective communication. However, other research has suggested that remote workers may frequently experience feelings of guilt and may overwork, for example, exchanging emails during non-working hours. Remote workers may be more satisfied with their job, more committed to their organisations, and experience less stress linked to the day-to-day demands of the office and commute. However, jobs often require some level of interaction with colleagues, which may be challenged by physical and temporal separation. Separation from the physical workspace can lead to feelings of isolation, and limit access to the social support that is crucial in increasing employee engagement and well-being.
In relation to the health impacts of remote working, Gschwind and Vargas (2019) note studies finding that the growing work-related use of mobile ICTs can have detrimental effects on occupational health, with remote workers using visual displays for longer periods than other workers. The main health concerns are neck pain and tendon pain in the wrists and fingers, with ophthalmic problems and sleeping disorders also occurring. Surveys suggest that employees themselves feel that remote working takes a toll on their health and well-being. Gschwind and Vargas also cite evidence that working with ICTs away from the employer’s premises seems to be related to slightly higher stress levels. Allen et al. (2015) however, report research finding that remote working is associated with statistically significantly lower work-role stress and work exhaustion, although the magnitude of these effects is rather small. Charalampous et al. (2019) discuss the concept of ‘technostress’ – resulting from a combination of extensive ICT use and the need to stay updated with technological changes. Suh and Lee (2017) suggest that the degree to which remote workers deal with high task interdependence and low autonomy, in conjunction with technology stressors, can lead to technostress, resulting in less job satisfaction. Charalampous et al. consider that remote workers could be considered as particularly susceptible to the ‘always-on culture’, due to a greater blurring of personal and work boundaries, increasing the temptation to continue working and resulting in a lack of recuperation. Greenbaum (2019) cites studies showing that remote workers’ professional obligations tend to extend beyond the traditional workday, preventing them from ever truly disconnecting.
The problem of loneliness is a growing concern in our contemporary society. DiJulio et al. (2018) cite a recent survey finding that more than a fifth of adults in the UK and the UK say they often or always feel lonely, lack companionship, feel left out, or isolated from others, with many saying that their loneliness has had a negative impact on various aspects of their life. Pomeroy (2019) argues that while this ‘epidemic’ of loneliness is increasingly recognised as a social issue, what’s less well recognised is the role loneliness plays as a critical determinant of health, where it has been estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years, equivalent in impact to being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Allen et al. (2015) note a 2012 poll across 24 countries where 62% of respondents said that they found remote working socially isolating. Cooper and Kurland (2002) reported that the extent to which remote workers experience professional isolation depended on the extent to which developmental activities were valued in the workplace and the extent to which they missed those opportunities. Workers mentioned that they missed hallway conversations that resulted in learning and knowledge sharing. Golden et al. (2008) report that professional isolation among remote workers can be linked to poorer job performance and greater intent to leave one’s organisation. Sia, et al. (2014) found that, out of a variety of communication methods, employees reported that face-to-face interaction is most important for maintaining workplace friendships.
Greenbaum (2019) notes that more than half of workers view remote working as a way to improve their work-life balance. People choose to work remotely to avoid daily commutes, reduce workplace distractions and to fulfil family care responsibilities. Gschwind and Vargas (2019) report surveys finding that 95% of remote workers stated that the practice had a positive impact on their quality life, both at work and away from it, with 89% reporting a higher quality of family life, and 88% a better work–life balance. However, Gschwind and Vargas also cite studies suggesting that, although flexible working schedules enable employees to integrate paid work and private life, family life is infringed upon in the process, and that remote working can increase feelings of guilt about neglecting home issues. They note studies from Finland and Germany indicating that positive and negative effects on work–life balance may essentially cancel each other out. Gschwind and Vargas cite evidence that remote workers in Europe tend to work longer than the average employee, with the pattern of the working day also altering. Almost half of remote workers run errands in between work periods, gear their working hours to family needs or do odd jobs or domestic chores when having a break. Only a minority of home-based remote workers (9%) kept to the office timetable. Thus, while the working day of remote workers is typically longer than those of office workers, it is also more ‘porous’, with evening and weekend working common.
Remote workers and the wider workplace
Allen et al. (2015) cite evidence that jobs involving a high level of interdependence also require a high level of coordination and interaction with others, where there is a concern that remote working can make such coordination difficult. Turetken et al. (2011) report a negative relationship between task interdependence and productivity among a sample of remote workers, and Golden and Veiga (2005) found that remote workers with higher task interdependence reported a smaller increase in job satisfaction relative to those with lower task interdependence. Gajendran and Harrison (2007) found that remote working did not harm co-worker relationships under low-intensity remote working arrangements but it did have a negative effect under high-intensity arrangements.
Allen et al. (2015) note research indicating that physical separation may impede knowledge transfer, where knowledge transfer is seen to hinge on trust among co-workers, which is more likely to occur via face-to-face over electronic communication. Golden and Raghuram (2010) found that remote workers who reported more trusting relationships within their work unit, stronger interpersonal bonds with co-workers, and greater organisational commitment, also reported greater knowledge sharing, and that the relationship was stronger with greater frequency of face-to-face interactions. Donnelly and Johns (2020) argue that explicit knowledge can be accessed relatively easily with the aid of digital software but that tacit knowledge is less readily available, and may be more likely to take place during in-person social exchanges.
Concerns around collaboration, as we have seen, have been a key reason given by firms for limiting remote working. Wilkie (2019) cites research indicating that proximity boosts productivity, especially in industries that rely on workers collaborating with one another. Allen et al. (2015) note that firms such as Google that rely on innovative product and service creation eschew remote working among employees in favour of co-locating employees in order to promote frequent co-worker interactions, and cite studies relating frequency of face-to-face interactions with creativity. Price (2019), however, argues that while there may be good reasons to keep everyone co-located, collaboration isn’t one of them, reasoning that, ‘If it did, no company would ever expand beyond a single office site. But expand we do. And the level of interaction between offices is only increasing.’ Price argues that if remote workers ‘are off on their own little islands or generally ineffective, that’s a people problem – not a proximity problem,’ adding that focusing on open communication, autonomy, and building trust makes people more effective no matter where their desk is.
Remote working and the firm: control and trust
Workplace relationships with line managers may be the most important relationship formed by employees, where research has indicated that frequent face-to-face interaction is important (Barry & Crant, 2000). Messenger and Gschwind (2016) note arguments that remote working has not expanded as rapidly as predicted as a result of managerial resistance and a lack of trust-based working arrangements. Gschwind and Vargas (2019) report that fears are particularly pronounced in small and medium-sized companies, and among managers who themselves have not had any experience with remote working. Greenbaum (2019) finds that company leaders’ hesitation around flexible work arrangements is often driven by the fear that performance will suffer if employees aren’t closely monitored. Hickman and Fredstrom (2019) argue that mutual trust is essential for employees in determining their engagement with their organisation. Greenbaum (2019) notes that teams with a strong group identity tend to have more perceived proximity and more trust.
Organisational culture and support
Commentators and scholars argue that organisational support is required for remote working to be effective. Greenbaum (2019) contends that only a handful of organisations are effectively using research insights to build evidence-based remote work programs. McDowell and Kinman (2017) cite a UK survey finding that over half of organisations sampled did not have clear guidance regarding work-life balance and supporting employees for remote working, with many leaving it to individuals to craft their own solutions. They argue that there is little research evidence to underpin the development of policies and practices in this area, where imposed initiatives such as ‘email free Fridays’, appear tokenistic, lack a clear evidence base, and are likely to have unintended negative consequences, such as increased email traffic on other days of the week.
Allen et al. (2015) note that firm-level indicators of performance have received less empirical attention than those for individuals, but that evidence generally suggests positive benefits. They note only two studies that have adopted a true experimental methodology in a field setting. In one of these, using a sample of Chinese call-centre employees it was found that those randomly assigned to remote working were more productive, more satisfied, and less likely to leave the organisation than those working under standard arrangements. However, they were less likely to be promoted, indicating an implicit bias held toward remote workers. Greenbaum (2019) notes evidence that remote workers appear to work more, citing a 2013 poll finding that they log an extra four hours per week on average compared with their counterparts in the office. Gajendran (2015) agrees that remote workers often work outside of contracted hours, for example by responding to emails outside of work hours. Amongst other benefits, Wilkie (2019) reports that remote working allowed IBM to shed more than 58 million square feet of office space, saving nearly $2 billion, with, in 2009, 40% of its 386,000 employees having no office at all. Lister (2016) estimates that a typical US employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time remote worker per year, where the primary savings are the result of increased productivity, lower real estate costs, reduced absenteeism and turnover, and better disaster preparedness.
Citing a Swedish case, Gschwind and Vargas (2019) note that almost 80% of employers stated that allowing employees to sometimes work remotely led to higher productivity. A 2013 UK study found that productivity was higher among home-based remote workers, partly because they tended to work more unpaid hours than their office-based counterparts, but also because they experienced fewer interruptions. Meta-analytical research by Gajendran & Harrison (2007) has suggested that remote working is positively associated with both supervisor-rated and objectively measured job performance, although the correlation between remote working and self-rated job performance is not significant. However, Allen et al. (2015) note that, despite numerous anecdotes suggesting that a key benefit of remote working is reduced turnover, empirical research on the topic is very limited, citing a 2005 European study reporting that whether or not an organisation offered remote working was not significantly associated with turnover rates.
Remote working and technology
Messenger and Gschwind (2016) note that ‘New ICTs’, such as smartphones and tablet computers, have revolutionised work and life in the 21st Century, so that today’s office work can be done from anywhere at any time. Kark et al. (2018) highlight that video conferencing, online collaboration platforms, and other tools have transformed organisations’ ability to collaborate on a global basis. However, some obstacles persist. Allen et al. (2015) argue that communication tools that can adequately simulate face-to-face interactions and inject social context are still lacking. Video tools are able to convey some social cues, but their effectiveness is hindered by a lack of eye contact due to the inability to look at the computer screen and the camera at the same time, rendering communication unnatural. DiJulio et al. (2018) highlight the ambiguous role of technology in relation to social isolation, with some viewing the increased use of technology as a major reason why people are lonely or socially isolated. McDowell and Kinman (2017) note how digital technologies can make work omnipresent in people’s lives, blurring boundaries between work and non-work domains, where the risks of rapidly switching between tasks for wellbeing have been identified. Finally, Gschwind and Vargas (2019) cite a 2015 Swedish survey where 63% of respondents encountered difficulties accessing their organisation’s IT system and 56% had problems participating in remote meetings.
Does remote working have a positive impact on society? Allen et al. (2015) note that reducing the number of individuals commuting by automobile has the promise of reducing greenhouse emissions and taking pressure off transportation infrastructures, but cite evidence that the mileage saved by not traveling to work is offset by errands or other trips, concluding that there does not appear to be robust evidence to suggest that remote working significantly reduces the number of vehicle miles travelled. However, they suggest that another way in which remote working may offer societal benefits is by providing business continuity in the face of external events that can disrupt business and government operations. Allen et al. note differing opinions concerning the impact of remote working on societal relationships. On one hand, an increase in remote working may result in individuals becoming more isolated from one another and from public institutions, where the workplace serves as a stabilising societal institution. On the other hand, however, stronger ties to family and neighbours may replace workplace ties, with, as Toffler predicted, a rebirth of family-centred communities. Finally, Allen et al. propose that remote working could provide expanded work opportunities, for example by increasing opportunities for disabled individuals to participate in the workforce.
Remote working is not a one-size-fits-all solution
Remote working is often presented as a practice that is potentially open to all, and that will suit everyone equally. However, academics have increasingly highlighted the contingent aspects of remote work. As Allen et al. (2015) point out, it is clear that not all jobs or tasks are suitable for this type of work arrangement. A disproportionate number of remote workers are found in professional, information, finance and other services. The ability to work from home is often also tied to authority and status, with managers more likely to be allowed to work remotely. Jobs that involve measurable work output also lend themselves to remote working, providing concrete information on performance that can offset managerial concerns around lack of observation. Finally, Charalampous et al. (2019) note that remote working is suitable for tasks requiring high concentration.
Gschwind and Vargas (2019) note gender differences in remote working, citing a study finding that female home-based remote workers performed extensive housework and were more likely to work shorter hours, whereas male remote workers tended to have a work pattern more akin to full-time hours and contributed little by way of housework. Shockley and Allen (2012) reported that individuals with greater family responsibility were more likely to endorse life management motives than were individuals with less family responsibility. Due to the high cost and low availability of childcare, for some, such arrangements may be the only option for combining paid work and childcare.
Allen et al. (2015) highlight a range of evidence indicating that the extent to which an individual works away from a central office makes a difference in determining outcomes, where remote working is rarely an all-or-nothing practice. Golden and Veiga (2005) propose that there may be a crucial threshold in the amount of time an individual can productively work remotely, beyond which there are diminishing returns. Remote working may therefore be most beneficial in terms of organisational outcomes when it is practiced to a moderate degree, where a balance of face-to-face and virtual contact may be optimal. Gajendran (2015) found that remote workers’ relationships with colleagues generally only suffered if they worked remotely three or more days each week. Even within a specific role, some duties may be well suited to remote working, while others are better performed in person. The success of remote working also clearly depends on the character of the individual. Anderson et al. (2015) found that individuals were more likely to experience positive emotions when working remotely when they were more open to experience, ruminated less, and had more social connections outside their workplace. Workaholic individuals were also found to be more satisfied with their job when working remotely than the rest of their colleagues.
Gajendran (2015) considers remote working in the wider context of the organisation, suggesting that its growing popularity could end up dampening its benefits, finding that when the practice is less common at a company, employees tend to perform best when they work remotely, but when most employees at an organisation are allowed to work remotely it more often does not improve work performance, suggesting that enthusiasm about the arrangement may wane as it becomes ubiquitous. If, as seems to be the case in most organisations, remote working is viewed not as a right but as a privilege to be earned, if everyone is getting it, it may be valued less.
Gajendran (quoted in Greenbaum, 2019) concludes that ‘It’s not so much that remote working is good or bad; it’s just that sometimes it’s advantageous and sometimes it’s not.’ McDowell and Kinman (2017) contend that a contingency approach, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ perspective that overlooks the key role played by context, is necessary.
Gaps in the research
Charalampous et al. (2019) note the lack of longitudinal research on remote working, limiting our ability to define causation and direction in relationships and to reveal the mechanisms between these dimensions. Allen et al. (2015) argue that longitudinal studies could help answer a number of questions, for example, does remote working tend to be a sustained practice or is it more episodic in its occurrence amongst individuals, and do the benefits (and pitfalls) of remote working increase or decline when undertaken over a long time period? Charalampous et al. (2019) point out that the exact psychological processes that underlie the link between remote working and well-being remain largely unexplored, where research has not satisfactorily explored remote workers’ job aspirations, cognitive weariness, and psychosomatic health. They also note that research tends to focus on remote workers’ well-being without considering their counterparts still based the office, with evidence suggesting that office-based employees experience greater work-family conflict when their colleagues are absent. The well-being of a few remote workers might, therefore, be at the expense of other office-based workers.
How can organisations better support remote working?
Allen et al. (2015) highlight the importance of providing remote workers with quality technology, with social richness incorporated into communication mechanisms to reduce social isolation, and the provision of better support and training to facilitate the adjustment to remote working. Charalampous et al. (2019) point out that, although remote workers are exposed to the same ergonomic risks as their office-based colleagues, organisations need to pay more attention to remote or home offices, noting that some organisations have not yet established policies to safeguard healthy ICT use. Charalampous et al. argue that a supportive organisational culture and environment can play a pivotal role in promoting remote workers’ well-being, where perceived support from the organisation, together with support from managers and peers, positively influences individuals’ job satisfaction, reducing psychological strain and social isolation. Greenbaum (2019) argues that firms need to shift their culture and norms to support remote working, and that prior to allowing employees to work remotely, organisations should re-evaluate policies around performance evaluation, promotion and salary increases to ensure that they don’t favour on-site workers. Putnam et al. (2014) recommend changing organisational cultures through adopting a philosophy of adaptability, customising work, and making workplace flexibility an employee right. They argue that both organisations and society need to reframe the tensions between work and life to treat them as enriching rather than competing. Charalampous et al. (2019) conclude that organisations need to weigh both the benefits and drawbacks of remote working, and openly discuss ways in which isolating feelings may be ameliorated. Organisations should create social support networks between remote workers and their colleagues and supervisors.
Hickman and Fredstrom (2019) emphasise the importance of managers clarifying expectations around remote working. They argue that managers need to connect remote workers to colleagues doing similar work, should host frequent team meetings to foster a sense of connectedness and belonging, and should continually provide feedback on remote workers’ performance, and the opportunities available to help them learn and develop. MacRae and Sawatzky (2020) highlight the role of HR in providing the proper selection, support, appropriate resources, development opportunities, performance management structure and software to enable remote working. However, Greenbaum (2019) argues that the onus for making remote work a success should not fall solely on employers, and that employees also need to cultivate effective routines, set boundaries with managers, colleagues and family members, and make an effort to stay socially and professionally engaged.
The future of remote work
Although some employers have backtracked on remote working, most scholars and commentators remain optimistic, and research finds that for many individuals and firms the positives outweigh the negatives. So what does the future hold for remote working? Focusing on technology, Allen et al. (2015) predict that the development of telepresence systems – technology that gives the sense of being physically present in a remote or simulated environment – will provide an immersive experience that more closely mimics colocation. Although they concede that such systems do not remedy the loss of random ‘watercooler’ conversations, they argue that the use of applications such as Google Hangouts can foster the more informal interactions that can be missed when working remotely. Cagle (2019) even predicts that, as more work becomes augmented with AI, even traditionally physical jobs such as construction or trucking could eventually be done through robotic drones.
Cisco Webex Room Panorama
It is clear that technology in this area will continue to advance, and, hopefully, the supporting communications infrastructure will overcome the connectivity issues that many of us still suffer from in working remotely. However, the debate around the effectiveness of collaboration and creativity in remote working is not solely a technological problem, where, as we have seen, issues of trust are important. If we are to move to more remote working in the longer term, then issues of trust may be overcome through a general societal shift towards online relationships. Another factor here, one absent from much of the research in this area, is a generational one. The cohorts now entering the workforce are the first who have grown up entirely in a world of social media and online gaming, where they tend to much more comfortable in establishing trust in online relationships.
Finally, the practice of remote working highlights the age-old tension between autonomy and control in organisations, where increasingly sophisticated techniques of control have developed that can effectively monitor remote workers, at the same time that such systems are increasingly questioned, where an ‘aristocracy’ of knowledge workers may be able to push back on surveillance in the name of autonomy and empowerment at the same time that an increasingly commoditised army of low paid home workers are monitored and regimented by technology.
Although some have predicted that technology will in future enable most jobs to be done remotely, it is clear that we are some way from that point. Nevertheless, it seems likely that remote working will continue to increase, where both employees and employers will drive this growth, but where perhaps the biggest driver will be wider societal pressures around public health. Many of the new remote workers will come from the ‘aristocracy’ of knowledge workers and other professionals, having both the bargaining power over their employers and the facilities in their homes to ensure that the practice works for them. For many others, however, the move to remote working will be more problematic. This cohort will consist of lower-paid workers performing tasks that can be effectively monitored by technology and a largely hands-off management, such as call centre staff. Although able to take advantage of flexible hours to fit in with family arrangements, these workers will be less likely to have the adequate space and facilities they need at home, will get less organisational support, and will likely be discouraged from engaging too much with their colleagues.
An increase in remote working may, therefore, serve to exacerbate existing divisions in the workplace, with an aristocracy of workers having increased autonomy and flexibility, alongside another group that is more marginalised, with this latter group often working in poor conditions, to the detriment of their physical and mental health, increasingly monitored and controlled by technology rather than people, and increasingly socially isolated. Although society as a whole may benefit in terms of reduced commuting, and, in today’s world, from enhanced public health, we are in danger of creating an organisational world that is more divided and more isolated at a time when as a society the advantages of unity and social cohesion are seen to be more important than ever.
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