When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, businesses, schools, universities, entertainment venues, and so many other places were forced to move their services online. From Zoom University, to waking up five minutes before an interview, to meetings derailed by the sight of a coworker’s pet, spending the past year in a virtual environment has certainly brought numerous changes. As with any major lifestyle upheaval, the transition from in-person to remote has brought benefits for businesses and their employees and many serious and potentially long-term consequences.
Both employees and businesses who adapt to a work from home model can benefit from cost savings. Without the need to commute potentially long distances to the office, employees save money on gas, public transportation, and parking. The dress code in a remote environment is typically more informal. So, employees also spend less on professional clothing and dry cleaning. For companies, working from home can significantly decrease real estate costs.
With office space empty, businesses don’t have to pay for utilities, maintenance, cleaning, or other small expenditures, like office snacks. Further, many companies who plan to implement a permanent work from home model can save significantly by decreasing the amount of brick and mortar buildings they own. For example, the U.S. patent office saved 38 million dollars in real estate costs by allowing patent examiners to work remotely.
A survey conducted by Prodoscore found productivity actually increased by 47% in 2020 despite the switch to working remotely. In a virtual environment, workplace distractions are almost entirely eliminated, allowing employees to focus on their tasks. Without commutes, employees have extra time to dedicate to their work to-do lists. Some remote workers have also reported increased job satisfaction, which may lead to increased employee efficiency.
However, the work from home environment presents many productivity challenges. Workplace distractions may be replaced with distractions from children, pets, or other family members. A completely remote environment presents new communication challenges. This includes email overloads, limited team cohesion, and an inability to get help or guidance promptly. It’s much easier to be disengaged, unmotivated, and distracted in a Zoom meeting than an in-person meeting. Low employee morale, caused by a lack of face-to-face communication, isolation, and burnout, can also negatively impact productivity.
The data is unclear as to whether a shift to remote work can significantly improve the environment’s current status. One positive environmental impact is that a decrease in commutes has led to fewer emissions. According to CBS News, emissions were expected to drop 7% in 2020 because of trucks and cars less commuting. However, the UN Emissions Gap Report for 2020 found that carbon footprints need to be reduced by a whopping 97% to prevent future climate change.
Digitizing documents has led to significantly less paper usage by companies. Plus, working from home can decrease power consumption, as less energy is used to power offices and other workplaces. Yet energy consumption hasn’t decreased as much as experts had hoped this past year. This is because offices’ energy has been replaced with energy consumed by employees who are now spending more time at home. Also, a decrease in commute emissions has been offset by an increase in leisure travel.
Data has shown working from home can benefit the environment by improving air quality. For example, when Londoners switched to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic, Breathe London found a 25% reduction in emissions during the normal morning commute and a 34% reduction during the evening commute. The U.K. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology also discovered that pollution in some British cities decreased by 60%. Despite this, some experts still question the sustainability of environmental improvements linked to the pandemic. According to Benjamin Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Sussex, “Unless workers and employers fully commit to the working-from-home model, many of the potential energy savings could be lost.” He explains that a hybrid model, where employees work remotely and in-person, “will not deliver the energy savings the world needs.”
Less workplace stress, less time stuck in traffic during commutes, and more free time spent with family can also improve employee well-being. According to Timothy Golden, a Professor of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “Research has shown a powerful correlation between telecommuting and job satisfaction.”
However, working virtually often means sitting down for hours on end and constantly staring at a computer screen, which can have serious health consequences. For example, the American Chiropractic Association found that 92% of chiropractors treated patients who reported increased neck pain since the introduction of stay-at-home orders in early 2020. Some other health consequences include:
Constantly being in video meetings can also negatively impact an employee’s mental health. Constantly seeing our own distorted and degraded image staring back at us can increase feelings of self-consciousness. Especially for people who ready have body image disorders. As Marissa Shuffler, an associate profess at Clemson University, points out, we are much more aware that people are looking at us when on a video call, which can create immense social pressure.
Zoom dysmorphia, or the condition where a person uncontrollably fixates on perceived physical flaws while on a video call, is a concerning result of spending long hours in video meetings. Increased negative emotions around body image have even caused more individuals to seek out cosmetic procedures. A report published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology surveyed over 100 board-certified U.S. dermatologists and found that “86% of respondents reported their patients” referenced “video conferencing as a reason for their new cosmetic concerns.”
When discussing the benefits and drawbacks of a virtual working world, economic impacts are often overlooked. Some economists argue the work from home trend may lead to worsening inequality. In most service industries, like healthcare, retail, and tourism, working from home is impossible. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom mentions that managers, professionals, and financial workers make up most workers who say they can complete tasks remotely at an efficiency of 80% or more.
For some employees, working from home is possible, but not ideal. According to Bloom, “only 65 percent of Americans reported having fast enough internet capacity to support workable video calls.” Only well-educated and high-earning workers can take full advantage of a remote working environment, potentially giving them more opportunities to advance in their careers.
Without the need to be physically close to an office location, population declines in big city sectors are probable. Because the cost of living in cities is incredibly high, remote employees may choose to relocate to cheaper towns and neighborhoods. This type of migration can place serious strains on city budgets.
Even with successful vaccine rollouts and decreased restrictions, the work environment will likely never go back to how it was pre-pandemic. The truth is, many workers prefer working from home.
For example, Facebook will be allowing about half of its workforce (around 25,000 employees) to continue working remotely after the pandemic ends. Insurance giant Nationwide has adopted a hybrid model, planning to increase the number of permanent remote workers while shutting down at least five brick-and-mortar offices. It appears working from home is unlikely to go away any time soon. So how can you mitigate the negative effects of a remote environment? Let’s dive into this question next.
There are many ways you can increase your physical comfort and prevent long-term health issues while working from home. Here are some tips to try:
If you feel like your work-life balance is completely out of whack, create a schedule or routine and stick to it. According to the American Psychological Association, “In today’s digital world, it’s easy to feel pressure to be available 24 hours a day. Establish some work-life boundaries for yourself. That might mean making a rule not to check email from home in the evening or not answering the phone during dinner.” Build transition times between video calls and meetings, and make sure you set aside time for yourself to eat, sleep, exercise, and decompress.
If a meeting isn’t necessary, use an email or phone call instead to decrease your screen time. If the work from home environment leaves you feeling isolated and alone, remember that many of your coworkers probably feel the same way. Don’t hesitate to reach out! Schedule a phone call or virtual “coffee chat” with a colleague to catch up and take a break from work. Also, if you feel comfortable, find safe ways to get together in person with friends and family in your area.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts about transitioning to a virtual work environment? Let us know in the comments below!
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