Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

Experts and readers weigh in on the future of remote work.

Jonathan WolfeAmelia Nierenberg


When the pandemic is in the rearview mirror — some day — many of us may look back on these years as the moment that our work lives changed forever. When millions of employees were told to work remotely, the boundary between our office lives and home lives began to blur, in ways that are still unfolding.

As part of a series we’re calling “Our Changing Lives,” we’re exploring the ways the pandemic has altered the way we live now. This week we spoke to Claire Cain Miller, who writes about the future of work for The Times.

How big of a role will remote work play in the future?

For white-collar employment that can be done remotely, I think it’s never going to go away. By the time offices really fill up again, we will have been doing this for almost two years, and people have realized the benefits of remote work: It works just as well, people are just as productive, and there’s going to be huge resistance to going back full time.

Most companies are now offering hybrid schedules where they’re not requiring people to come back full time. And those that have, like Apple and Goldman Sachs, their employees have basically said, “That’s not going to work for us.” And the companies have gone back to the drawing board and changed their plans.

But I think full remote — like letting employees work wherever they want — we’re not going to see a ton of that. It really requires a totally different level and type of management.

How well does working remotely actually work?

People tend to be more productive at home. This has been proved before the pandemic, including in a study of a call center in Shanghai. It has also held up in the surveys during the pandemic. People are more productive, and that’s despite all the stressors of the pandemic, like schools being closed, or children being at home, or perhaps caring for a sick family member. So you could imagine that if those stressors were lifted, people would be even more productive.

How has remote work changed this last year and a half?

It took a while for some companies to adjust to remote work best practices, and some never did. But the companies that seem to be happiest with the outcomes — and have employees that are the least burned out — are those that didn’t just try to move the physical office online. They actually created new ways of working. For example, back-to-back meetings on Zoom really burned people out. So companies that really made it work got rid of a lot of meetings, or they set really strict time limits, or they had no-meeting days.

From the management perspective, there’s been a lot of work on how to communicate with your teams when you’re not seeing them every day, and that has often meant more one-on-one meetings with employees. They’ve also had to create new ways of evaluating employees that consider the work that’s actually getting done and not how many hours of work a week someone put in.

For employees, they realized how much better it was when they had some autonomy. So maybe that’s going for a run, or taking a nap, or praying midday, or picking up their kids from school.

What does the future of remote work look like?

Remote work is something that is going to be part of every job that can be done remotely from here on out. And I’m sure the technology will continue to improve to make it feel more like you have the constant chitchat and camaraderie of the office.

I expect most companies will still have people together in person some of the time. But I also think people are going to be a lot happier working remotely once their kids are back in school, or once they’re vaccinated and not terrified of the virus, or dealing with illness themselves or sick family members. People are eventually going to be able to work in a coffee shop again, work in a library again, or maybe go work at a friend’s house who works remotely for another company and have some camaraderie. Once the pandemic restrictions are lifted, I think people are going to realize that remote work is even better than they imagined.

More on remote work:

  • Even though big-name tech companies announced that they would delay their return to office plans because of the Delta variant, several weeks of surveys from Morning Consult found that most companies’ plans had not changed.

We recently asked readers how working from home was working out, and more than 500 of you wrote in. Many of you have found remote work enjoyable — or even idyllic.

“There are no negatives in remote work for me. I have never liked the pressure of being in the office, making sure I say or do the right thing,” Karen Angus, from Detroit, wrote. “I love that I don’t have to feel pressure to eat cake for so-and-so’s birthday, or go out to lunch with a group. No more forced bonding, no more chitchat, just work.”

“I finally feel like salaried work and balance exist,” wrote Tim Mattioli-Ackerlund from Algonquin, Ill. “Work now meshes with my life rather than existing as an eight-hour block in my day. I love it!”

Other reported benefits include fewer illnesses, less burnout, no commute, more time with family and sweatpants. Another plus? It gives us a break from self-promoting co-workers.

“You know who I’m talking about; the guy who manages up well so he constantly gets promoted, even though everyone else knows he hardly works,” Rachel Christensen from South Jordan, Utah, wrote. “The co-worker who talks over you in meetings to crack a joke, but who doesn’t contribute any ideas.” Without an office, she wrote, “work quality finally seems to speak louder than the squeaky wheels.”

The minuses include Zoom fatigue, lost networking opportunities, and distractions and responsibilities at home. Some of you also said that you were working longer hours.

“The experience reminds me a bit of being in college, where ‘work’ and ‘real life’ are jumbled together in an inextricable mess,” wrote Reeve Gutsell from Belchertown, Mass.

Many of you also missed your work mates.

“The only negatives I would say have maybe been not being able to have banter, or talk to colleagues in real life, and after work drinks!” Chrissy Ngugi from Chicago wrote. Although probably not enough to go back full time. “I don’t miss them that much!” she added.

In the end, this experiment in remote work has given many of us the opportunity to see another side of our co-workers — one that will, hopefully, make us better colleagues when we finally see each other again.

“We’re all a little more human than we were when we were in person and put together in the office each day,” wrote Ashley Kresen from Stillwater, Minn. “This includes little views of kids, pets, ponytails, and no makeup. In many ways that part has been so refreshing — we’re all real.”

Here’s how some readers think you can make remote work better. (Thanks to everyone who wrote in.)

“If there is any way to create a separate work space — preferably walled off from the day-to-day home life — then that makes all the difference for me.” — Ben Arnold, Oakland, Calif.

“Turn off your ‘self view’ on zoom. It helps.” — Lisa Elliott, Denver

“Getting up and still going through a routine every morning helps. My routine is shorter now (e.g., I don’t put on any makeup), but I still change out my PJs into comfy pants and a work-appropriate top and brush my teeth, wash my face, make coffee, which helps put me into ‘work mode.’ And I still change after work to get me out of ‘work mode.’” — Mary M., New York

“My favorite work from home hack — earrings. I could have sweatpants and slippers on, and yet, with those sparkling earrings, I look so much more polished.”— A. Beck, Los Angeles

“I suggest for people who are fidgety (as I am) if you are on a meeting where you are mainly listening do something with your hands. I chop vegetables, make bread, generally cook. Sometimes I fold laundry while watching a presentation.”— Lauren Gillman, Saint Paul, Minn.

“Schedule blocks into your calendar, specify your break, lunch, or even a jog, into your work calendar. People have the illusion that remote workers are available 24/7. Blocking off calendars can help with your sanity.” — Vincent Du, Tustin, Calif.

“Never apologize if a kid is noisy during a call. Work invaded home, not home invaded work.” — Marco, Queens, N.Y.

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Jonathan Wolfe and Amelia Nierenberg