October 8, 2020

Will Remote Work Go Mainstream After the Pandemic? Don’t Count On It

Thank goodness for the technology that's enabled all of us to do remote work. It’s getting us through the pandemic with a minimal loss in productivity.

In fact, remote work has been successful beyond anyone’s expectations, so much so that many pundits proclaim remote work will become mainstream even when the pandemic is over. They point to a number of advantages, like access to more and better talent.

I’m not buying it. Yes, remote work brings some advantages, but they are far outweighed by the downsides. Consider:

  • Culture. How do you build and maintain culture when employees are not working in the same place? And how do you acculturate new employees, many of whom are working with colleagues they have never met in person? Culture falls apart when colleagues don’t have an opportunity to work together in the real world.
  • Relationships. Personal relationships are the grease that makes doing business easier. Relationships formed in the virtual world are qualitatively inferior to those built face-to-face. Remotely connected colleagues have weaker ties to one another. Outside relationships, particularly with new customers, are much harder to develop. It’s tough to build trust on a screen.
  • Mentoring. I worry particularly about the development of junior employees. People learn from observing their managers and colleagues, and from the countless informal interactions that happen when people work in the same place. There’s a real risk of stunted career growth for these individuals.

A recent Wall Street Journal article that polled CEOs on remote work highlighted these same concerns. The comment of Arne Sorensen, the CEO of Marriott, was typical: “…remote work clearly works for many things, but I think we’re going to find that being together delivers value in productivity and creativity and relationships that is irreplaceable.” Amen.

Until things get better, we’ll keep doing our best with the tools we’ve got. But once the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, my bet is that most companies will return to their pre-pandemic routines. 

Yes, remote work brings some advantages, but they are far outweighed by the downsides.

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