On December 9, 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the Telework Enhancement Act, which created more opportunities for federal employees to work remotely or work from home. Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland, who introduced the bill in 2009, said the legislation would bring many benefits, such as helping the government prepare for unexpected events, while also saving taxpayer money.
“Telework has a positive impact on productivity, quality of life and the environment,” Sarbanes said at the time. “If fully integrated, it can save taxpayers money by increasing efficiency, reducing federal office space and improving employee retention.”
The legislation had quickly passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate, possibly because recent circumstances had illustrated some of the benefits of having a plan in place. Earlier that year, the country had dug its way out from under a snowstorm that restricted travel across much of the United States and forced the federal government to shut down for four and a half days. Then-Office of Personnel Management director John Berry estimated that the loss of productivity for each day the government was closed was $71 million.
According to Berry, that number would have been higher had it not been for the increasing number of federal employees able to work remotely.
Some of the Best Work From Home Careers
- Software Engineering
- Data Analytics
- Project Management
- Design & UX
- Source: Built In job application data.
Adapting to Remote Work Requires Planning
Businesses were interested in the concept as well. IBM was an early adopter, with 40 percent of its 386,000-person global workforce working from home by 2009, allowing the company to save $100 million by downsizing the amount of office space it needed by 78 million square feet, according to Quartz. By 2012, about one in five workers around the world were telecommuting, according to a joint Ipsos and Reuters poll.
Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a workforce strategy consulting company, said it is important that companies not simply follow the work-from-home trend, but to be intentional about how the changes are carried out.
“One of my big beefs with this is companies kind of let it happen rather than made it happen,” Lister said. “Seventy-five percent of organizations don’t have formal policy or programs or training, because they didn’t approach it as a strategy.”
“Who pays for home office technology? What’s the etiquette for email versus chat? What are your core hours and when will you be working so that we can have meetings?”
Lister said that not having clear policies can lead to uneven implementation, which on a larger scale could result in discrimination about which employees get to work from home and which ones do not.
“The Bureau of Labor Statistics only counts a company as offering telework if they offer it to all or most of their employees, and that number [of companies] is only 7 percent,” Lister said. “It goes to the older, more established, more trusted employees.”
There are also smaller matters that would be more easily dealt with as part of a larger company policy than left to individual managers or employees.
“Who pays for home office technology? What’s the etiquette for email versus chat? What are your core hours and when will you be working so that we can have meetings?” Lister brought up as examples of concerns a company should address prior to allowing work from home. “People are working remotely but don’t actually have the right technologies or don’t have the security in place, or don’t have access to the data that they need.”
It’s also important to have plans in place in order to take advantage of benefits that having a remote workforce can bring to a company.
“Companies can really reduce their real estate costs by having people work from home,” Lister said. “But again, if HR isn’t talking to real estate, then that cost savings isn’t maximized.”
Lister said that, among the first to jump on the telework model was the call center industry.
“They move into an area where a lot of people want to work in a call center,” Lister said. “Of course, all the other [call center] companies did the same study, so they all moved into the same area, and, within a few years, anybody who would have ever wanted to work for a call center already has and doesn’t want to again. So they would have to pick up their brick-and-mortar location and do their demographic studies again, and move it to another city, just repeating the process over and over.”
Eventually, some call center companies decided to try employees who worked from home, which allowed them to hire from a larger pool of candidates.
“It slashed turnover and improved customer service, so it was really a success,” Lister said.
Lister became interested in the topic of remote work in 2009 when she drew upon her personal experience operating a vintage airplane business from home to write a book on the benefits of working from home, titled Undress for Success: The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home. After that, she founded Global Workplace Analytics.
Seventy-six percent of people said that they wanted to work from home at least one day per week after COVID-19.
Recently, the company collaborated with Iometrics to produce a survey report on employees working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The survey found that 72 percent of people were able to manage distractions better at home than at work, but that people weren’t as able to collaborate with coworkers or help to mentor others compared to at the office. Seventy-six percent of people said that they wanted to work from home at least one day per week after COVID-19.
Some companies have found that remote work is well suited to their businesses, even structuring their workforces so that employees work remotely by default.
What Jobs Are Best Suited for Remote Work?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that, in 2018, 20 percent of wage and salary workers spent some time working from home on an average day, for an average of 2.73 hours. Whether someone spent time working from home was correlated to their weekly income — higher earners were more likely to work from home.
The prevalence of working from home was tied to job type as well. The jobs with the lowest levels of working from home were those whose work was tied to being at a specific workplace, including transportation, production and construction. Next were those in the service industry and office and administrative support roles.
What Makes a Job Good for Working from Home
- Not being tied to a physical workplace, which is typical for industries such as transportation or construction.
- Jobs in management, business and financial operations.
- When work can be broken into discrete chunks.
- Work that doesn’t require complex conversations with multiple stakeholders.
The job category with the highest prevalence of working from home was “management, business and financial operations,” with a third of workers reporting that they spent some time working from home on an average day. A close second were workers in the category of “professional and related” jobs.
Sales had the third highest, at 27.4 percent.
Donncha Carroll, partner at Axiom Consulting, a management consultant company based in Chicago, said that, although traveling is still prevalent for large deals among large enterprises, other areas of sales are conducted less commonly in person. Sales is increasingly seen as a job that can be done — and should be done — remotely.
“Work that’s complex, nuanced, packed full of unexpected turns” and that requires engagement from many stakeholders isn’t a good fit for remote work.
“There’s a very close relationship between the amount of time you spend selling and the amount of sales that you achieve as a salesperson,” Carroll said. “If you spend a lot of time flying or driving, then that means less time in front of a customer.”
Carroll said that, over the past 10 to 15 years, customers’ buying processes have changed significantly, switching from passively fielding calls from salespeople to doing research about potential vendors online.
“You’re seeing a major shift from field sales to inside sales, which absolutely can be handled remotely,” he said.
According to Carroll, jobs that are well-suited for remote work are ones that can be broken down into discrete chunks, where “you don’t really need to engage anyone.”
On the other hand, “work that’s complex, nuanced, packed full of unexpected turns” and that requires engagement from many stakeholders isn’t a good fit for remote work. He said that it was difficult to have those complex conversations remotely, over the phone or video conference. An example he gave of that was corporate development work, where many people have to work together to find new acquisition targets.
Teaching is a job that Carroll suggested might surprise people with how well it fit with remote work — for students who are college-age and beyond.
“It’s very hard to keep young kids focused without an actual classroom,” Carroll said. “But I’m thinking about the massive open online courses, the Courseras of the world. Individuals can access the best lectures and the best content for a very small amount of money. Previously they’d have to spend $50,000 a year to go to Harvard or Stanford.”
Carroll said that, for some companies, although the work might be easy to transfer to remote, another area of concern is how to preserve the company culture. Axiom has worked with law firms that transitioned to fully working remote, and had to figure out how to formalize “those informal discussions ... that happen in the office before and after the working day.”
The ‘Remote-First’ Culture
Webflow, a company founded in 2012 that lets customers design and launch their own websites, embraced a remote work culture early on.
“We would say that we’re a remote-first culture,” said Nicole Hopkins, director of people operations at Webflow. “When COVID isn’t happening, we do have a headquarters in San Francisco, where we have around 40 people who frequent the office — it varies, because people can work from home. And then we have another 130 team members across the U.S. and internationally as well.”
Hopkins said that the company being “remote first” meant it had an easier time than others when shifting employees to fully remote as a result of the pandemic.
“A lot of the things that happen have a remote-first viewpoint,” Hopkins said. “For instance, our CEO does a weekly meeting [where] everyone logs in to Zoom.”
Webflow employees take full advantage of the opportunity to work remotely — one engineer lives in a remote town in Alaska.
“The one requirement is, if it is remote, you can work anywhere as long as you have an internet connection and a decent space to work from,” Hopkins said.
Webflow hasn’t found many drawbacks to the arrangement, but sometimes coordinating across time zones does take more effort “to ensure that people feel connected and included.”
“The one requirement is, if it is remote, you can work anywhere as long as you have an internet connection and a decent space to work from.”
“We’ve got a growing contingency of team members in APAC [the Asia-Pacific region], for instance — it’s literally opposite times of the day,” Hopkins said. “That’s one of the challenges, but I think it’s also interesting as we continue to grow.”
But even for a company that is used to working remote, the forced isolation of the pandemic brings new challenges.
“Working remote is not working remote during a pandemic,” Hopkins said. “The positive was that, while our personal lives were thrown for a loop, the consistent stable thing was work. So there was a lot of comfort in that, but there’s still the mental-health concerns that come along with not having your normal routine or the ability to see people — especially if you live alone and feel isolated.”
The company makes special effort during this time to bring people together virtually, to counteract some of the pandemic’s isolating effects.
“We’ve just been ramping up how much opportunity we create for our team in terms of connection checks,” Hopkins said. “We did that before the pandemic using Donut, where we try and get folks to cross-collaborate through Slack, and it just automatically pairs them up for a coffee chat. But since the pandemic, we’ve been doubling down on things like kids’ show and tell for the employees who are parents, one of our team members does tarot card readings, we have another team member who does magic, and tomorrow we have a workout class. We’re trying to create more opportunities for folks to connect socially than we normally would.”
The Current Job Market Makes Remote Work Likely for New Grads
College graduates entering the job market might be feeling some trepidation about starting their first full-time jobs remotely. But according to Michelle Mittelman, associate director of the engineering career center at the University of Illinois–Chicago, employers are being very accommodating right now.
“They’re figuring out ways to make sure that the student, if they are starting remotely, they’ve got all the machines,” Mittelman said. “Some companies are even sending students additional monitors or ergonomic chairs to make sure that they’re comfortable and establishing a good worksite at home.”
Mittelman works specifically with computer science and computer engineering students, and from what she’s seen, the industry has been less affected by the pandemic than others. Companies are still hiring graduates, and taking care to make new hires feel welcome.
“Being in the tech industry, some companies are more flexible to pivoting to remote work environments,” Mittelman said. “I think they’re doing what they can to make it as real as they can — virtual meet-ups over Zoom, sending them care packages with branded materials like T-shirts.”
“A lot of companies really do want to expose students to the work environment.”
The same applies for companies still filling internship positions. Even more than with new hires, companies that hire interns want to include them in activities where they will get a sense of what working full time at the company would be like.
“A lot of companies really do want to expose students to the work environment,” Mittelman said. “They want them to see what their company is like, what the culture is like — because, especially for internship programs, the whole goal is to convert them to a full-time position at the end of the summer, so you want them to have a great on-site experience. They really want to ensure that the student is getting really good supervision, that they’re feeling camaraderie among their coworkers, because they really want to foster that affinity for the company.”
For many students, waiting for the job market to recover isn’t a realistic option, so they have to navigate the new job uncertainties caused by COVID-19 as well as adjust to working remotely once they successfully have one.
“A lot of students, they know they’re going to have to pay back their student loans fairly soon,” Mittelman said. “A lot of them are first-generation students, transfer students — they need to work to make money. Maybe they had a part-time job at Starbucks and they’ve got significantly reduced hours so they really want to find something quickly.”
Remote Work Is Growing Steadily
In 2017, IBM reversed its pioneering model of remote work, recalling many employees to physical working locations based in several cities. According to Quartz, the change was due in part to a desire to foster more innovation in the company. While workers were productive working remotely, there weren’t as many opportunities for chance encounters and conversations among coworkers said to catalyze innovation.
But remote work certainly isn’t going away. Even before the pandemic forced workers to work from home, adoption of remote work had been steadily increasing at the rate of 10 percent a year for the past decade, according to Lister. And now that more people have been exposed to it, she suspects more are going to want to continue to work remotely once the pandemic is over.
“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Lister said. “We’ve got managers that are now more comfortable with it, we’ve got C-suite worried about a downturn in the economy, looking for the reduced real estate costs, increased productivity and greater resilience of telework. We’ve got the investment community and risk management that are going to be pushing for it. And sustainability — I’m already hearing from councils who want to create an advocacy program because of the environmental benefits.”
“Just the beginning of April, we put out an estimate that, by the end of 2021, we’d have 25 to 30 percent of the population working from home one day a week or more,” Lister said. “At the time I was feeling rather nervous about it because I thought it might be too high. Now I’m feeling nervous because I think it might be too low!”