What Happens to Remote-Friendly Work Culture in the Post-Pandemic Era?
“I never want to go back,” Miman*, a recruiter, told Apartment Therapy. “Remote life is the life for me.”
According to Miman, his home office is nothing special, but its benefits are magical in comparison to his former open office. Working from home, he can escape both his manager’s and coworkers’ gazes, and not stress over being so easily accessible. “I feel adjusted to it,” he said of working remotely. “It makes life so much easier as far as getting more sleep, saving money on gas, and running errands, too.”
Miman is one of the many professionals who don’t want to return to the “before-times” of work, which commonly refers to any point before March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic caused millions of workers to switch to a remote-only work routine, complete with Zoom meetings, phone calls, and overloaded WiFi systems. Yet despite the hurdles and headaches of widespread work-from-home life, it seems it may be here to stay if employees have their way: According to a survey from Global Workplace Analytics and Owl Labs conducted in June and July of last year, 80 percent of respondents said that they’d like to continue working remotely at least three days a week after the pandemic is over.
In March 2020, most employers and employees alike were not prepared for the swift transition to remote work, and in March 2021, they’re unprepared for the uncharted territory ahead. No person or organization knows what the future of work will look like, but one thing’s for sure: Remote work isn’t going anywhere. In fact, the pandemic may have only accelerated the decades-long push by workers and disability-rights activists toward a remote-friendly society. Apartment Therapy spoke with various professionals and experts to get a sense of how they are feeling, and how to navigate the terrain ahead to a more inclusive and flexible future of work.
Working From Home Is More Popular Than Ever — For a Variety of Reasons
For many office workers, the rare working-from-home day was reserved for an emergency home appointment or delivery, or perhaps if you or someone in your family was sick and needed care. Now, however, people are seeing through the long-held belief that working in one office is simply better for everyone involved. In a 2020 survey by the Becker Friedman Institute of Economics at the University of Chicago, a plurality of respondents said they felt just as productive (43.5 percent) or even more productive (41.2 percent) working from home as they did at the office. The study bolsters a 2019 prediction by the American Psychological Association that telework was here to stay because employees enjoyed the “small but tangible benefits” it offered for employees and organizations alike, including increased job performance and satisfaction.
Priyanka*, a broadcast news producer, appreciates having more control over her workspace and less surveillance from superiors. She also is more relaxed working from home because she doesn’t have to engage in small talk and all-but-compulsory events like happy hours. “I used to think it was all necessary and there was no way out of it,” she said of the office formalities she once felt compelled to join. “I’m no longer exhausted from forced social interactions at the end of the day. I’m able to finish my work and pick up my hobbies and personal tasks.”
Priyanka said she feels relieved that she only has to socialize with her co-workers during Microsoft Teams or Zoom meetings. “It is really exhausting and draining to fake ‘office talk’ with people at work, especially during such a mentally challenging time,” she noted, adding that she plans on staying remote for as long as possible. Her office does not plan to open up again until the fall of 2021.
To that end, a culture that encourages remote work might alleviate many of the downsides to office life — including, but not limited to, burnout due to the prevalence of toxic work environments, a lack of mental health support from employers, and little-to-no work-life balance. What’s more, a recent Gallup poll found that 45 percent of U.S. workers have experienced a form of discrimination or harassment in the past 12 months, and both Miman and Priyanka spoke to the pressure that professionals of color often feel in white-majority workplaces. Unfortunately, that pressure has real consequences: In 2018, the Harvard Business Review reported that marginalized workers can even face career setbacks linked to the pressure they feel to “connect” with white co-workers, even though they perform at high levels.
“Remote work has relieved the pressure to have to be social for people who have no interest in being social or engaging in small talk with people that they may not get along with or who exhibit microaggressions,” Dr. Charmain F. Jackman, a licensed psychologist and the CEO of InnoPsych, told Apartment Therapy. Working remotely will likely not solve the problems caused by an inappropriate or racist coworker, but it’s understandable that people might not want to give up the safe space of the home for an office space that was only ever hostile to them to begin with.
This Could Be an Opportunity to Make Work as Accessible as It Should Have Always Been
There’s also the fact that telecommuting makes working more accessible for parents, care-givers, and disabled professionals, among millions of others. The influx of flexible work hours also opens up new doors for how various groups of people can get work done, and when.
For many disabled professionals, working from home was never considered a luxury, but a necessity and any nostalgia of working in the “before-times” tends to erase the valid criticisms and concerns they’ve had regarding the need for flexible work environments for decades. Hannah Butch, a digital marketer who is autistic, has felt less pressure to hide her autism since she’s started working remotely. Butch told Apartment Therapy that she “loves doing new client pitches on video calls” because she doesn’t have to maintain “the awkward in-person eye contact expectation” and “can fiddle with a pen or doodle out of sight.” And even when offices open back up, she doesn’t feel a need to return to a cubicle.
“I want to stay remote because I find open plan offices too triggering,” she said. “I’d often get sensory overload and need to find a quiet place to escape — not all managers like this!”
Not every job can be done entirely remotely, but working from home has provided some disabled professionals much needed breathing room. “It’s been nice to sit in class virtually or sit in a meeting work virtually,” Nate Tilton, a disabled veteren who is a graduate student and Lab Manager for the University of California, Berkeley’s Disability Lab, said. “I don’t have to worry about how am I going to get out of bed and past this disability flare-up or have to worry about people staring at me when I’m engaged in crip time.”
According to Alison Kafer, a professor and the author of Feminist, Queer, Crip, “Crip time is flex time not just expanded, but exploded,” and it’s important that managers and bosses readjust their expectations for remote and in-office workers to account for it. “It requires re-imagining our notions of what can and should happen in time or recognizing how expectations of ‘how long things take’ are based on very particular minds and bodies,” she said. “Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds.”
The temporary normalization of remote works offers a keen opportunity to question who benefits most from remote work, and often disabled professionals aren’t at the top of that list. Emily Ladau, a writer and disability rights activist, told Apartment Therapy that while she’s had the privilege to work remotely since 2013, doing so always should have been an option. “My hope is that remote work is permanently recognized as a completely legitimate mode of employment, rather than just a temporary pandemic change,” the “Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to be an Ally” author said. “When employers deny disabled people the opportunity to work remotely — or deny anyone the opportunity, for that matter — they’re likely missing out on really great employees simply because they’re holding on to such a rigid idea of what workplace culture should be.”
However, some disabled professionals did not realize telework’s incomparable advantages until the pandemic. “I really benefit from the type of flexibility that working from home provides,” Megan*, a research scientist at a Research-1 university who was recently diagnosed with ADHD, said. “At home, I’m able to make my own accommodations for myself. I have easy access to meals and snacks and fresh air, as well as the comfort of my dogs and plants! Back in the office, I often don’t eat or get fresh air because, with ADHD, it’s out of sight, out of mind.”
Megan is one of the lucky few who didn’t worry about how to best inform her employer about her new diagnosis. “She was also my dissertation advisor when I was a student, so we’ve known each other for a long time,” she explained. Even so, she hasn’t felt comfortable telling her boss that she wants to stay remote (at least part-time) after the pandemic.
“It just feels so shameful,” she said, “which is a bit of a me problem and a whole lot of a bigger, structural issue in the workplace.”
Is Going Into the Office Part-Time a Viable Long-Term Solution?
The combination of stress, burnout, and impending doom has motivated professionals to reflect on what exactly they want their future to look like. Some employees may fantasize about going back to the office because they feel trapped in an environment where work-life bleeds into home-life. Lindsey Pollak, an author and consultant who has studied workplace culture for almost two decades, told Apartment Therapy that it’s important to not assume what professionals want going forward. “I think it’s a very personal feeling about your personality, your social life, your family life, your commute time, how nice your office is… I think it’s very, very personal,” Pollak said.
The lack of social interaction has also taken a notable toll across the general adult population. A 2020 study from JAMA Network reported that COVID-19 has tripled the rate of depression in adults in all demographic groups. Though applications like Zoom, Slack, and email can certainly keep teams connected all day every day, it is much harder to forge the organic connection created by grabbing coffee together in the mid-afternoon or bonding over shared project frustrations while eating your lunch (especially if you start a new job remotely).
“I think the isolation is really causing my depression and anxieties to spike,” Priyanka said, adding that “a part of me that wants to go back to the office because I do think it’s better for mental health reasons.” But the news producer is also aware that she might be conflating the social stimulation she found at work with other daily interactions also put on pause by the pandemic. “I am in desperate need of in-person interactions, but that might not necessarily have to be work interactions,” she said. “If we were able to open up restaurants, bars, [and] social circles safely, and still work remotely, I’d be interested in seeing how that works out.”
Julia Métraux, a part-time editorial assistant and freelance writer, misses “human interactions, which was a good part of going into an office a few days a week.” While this year has been challenging for her, it’s also reaffirmed her desires to pursue a career in journalism. “I definitely want to do more reporting that would involve traveling once it’s safe to do so,” she said. “I want to uncover more stories from the field, not just my bedroom.”
But Métraux, who has mild to moderate hearing loss, has also had to navigate graduating during a recession into the “bleak journalism industry” all while adjusting to the pandemic’s new normal, and she told Apartment Therapy that some things regarding telecommuting make working easier, and some things are more difficult.
“I like that I can work without a lot of background noise, with the exception of my dog playing in the background,” she said, and noted that, in particular, she has found it easier to interview subjects. However, participating in Zoom meetings has proven more difficult, and Métraux called it “frustrating that it took Zoom, a lot of people’s preferred platform, [so long] to announce that they will start to add captions to free accounts.” She was given early access to live captions on Zoom due to her disability, but in general, Deaf and hard of hearing people have been made to navigate new hurdles while working from home, often on their own.
The option for flexible and remote work invites a much needed conversation about how to make work accessible for all. Tilton noted that the future of work includes not only the right to telework, but the right to accessible telework, which includes the standard of disability-centered design. Activists and allies, he stressed, “are not fighting for telework that is just a reflection of the already inaccessible and ableist physical workspaces,” adding that a disability-centered workplace wouldn’t wait until an employee discloses their need for Zoom captions; they would offer captions at the outset because they prioritize centering disabled people in their design.
If organizations dismiss remote work as an option moving forward, they may also be ignoring all of the potential it has to benefit a diverse staff, which may be make or break for future employees. According to Pollak, we are only beginning to see the impacts of how millennials and younger generations approach workplace culture, especially given the ways in which these workers are acutely aware of the dilemmas of old work culture, including salary discrepancies, advocating for mental health benefits and flexibility, and so on. For many young professionals, looking to the future of work means examining and reflecting on what’s happening right now and learning from organizations’ mistakes. Pollak, the “Recalculating: Navigate Your Career Through the Changing World of Work” author told Apartment Therapy that this period is causing everyone to “rethink their relationship to how they work, where they work, what their values are around work.”
But What If Your Boss Is Less Excited About Remote Work Than You Are?
Even though some professionals want to stay at least partially remote, that doesn’t mean anyone knows what the future of work will hold. In a less palatable scenario, bosses are talking about the “when” but not “if” they’re returning to in-person work without employee input, which leaves those hoping for the option to stay remote in limbo.
Demonstrating that you’re a team player can go a long way in building trust within your organization, but when it comes time to have those difficult conversations, Pollak told Apartment Therapy that it’s important to be strategic. “It can’t just be about your needs, you have to show that you understand your situation or the accommodations that you’re asking for also have an impact on your team,” she said. If you’re trying to muster up the courage to ask for a full-time remote position, “show that you desire a positive outcome for everybody because that’s the way you’re going to show people that you’re a true team player and that you want to help solve any kind of situation that might come up from your needs,” Pollak added.
Keep in mind that there will be some offices that require employees to come back into the office, and they’re in their legal right to do so. Those employees will have to decide whether they’re comfortable returning to in-person work, and possibly need to part ways with their employer in favor of a more flexible work model. Dr. Jackman suggests that assessing what you need to feel successful at work and home can help determine whether or not your current organization is actually a part of your long-term goals. “I think that it’s very helpful just for people to just tune into what they need, [because] this has been a very challenging time,” she said.
While it’s still unclear when life will return to some form of “normal,” and what that normal will look like, one thing is for certain: We will be forever changed — and as a result, we might change the things that weren’t actually working all that well before. Yes, some people will return to the offices they left at least 12 months ago, but they and their peers will also have more options for where and how they would like to work than ever before. The “before-times” will never fully return, and that’s alright — professionals don’t want them to.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.