KENNEDY: Time is ripe for remote work

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Work from home? That’s so yesterday. The new paradigm is work from anywhere.

Remote work may have first shown its worth during the oil crises of the 1970s, as gas shortages and fast-rising prices made commutes more difficult and expensive.

But the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated wider adoption “by at least a decade,” says Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School whose research focuses on the future of work.

Early lockdown orders to slow the spread of COVID-19 saw institutions of all stripes send employees home to work. And as the pandemic dragged on, more and more traditional on-site employers, from financial services firms to warehousing operations and some manufacturers, began to view remote work as feasible, according to Choudhury.

“What is being really unleashed is a wave of creativity, which tells me this genie is not going back in the bottle,” he says. “We’ll never go back to the all-cubicle model of 2019.”

Choudhury was a panelist last week in a webinar on getting back to work hosted by SABEW, a professional association for business journalists known formally as the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing.

Aside from the pandemic, the time is ripe for remote work because employees want more flexibility and companies want a wider field from which to draw talent, Choudhury said his research shows.

In an article he wrote last year for the Harvard Business Review magazine, Choudhury cited the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which allows patent examiners, after a two-year training period at the agency’s suburban Washington, D.C. headquarters, to live anywhere in the country, with just the equivalent of two weeks’ work back at headquarters annually. Employees like being able to live in lower-cost areas or being nearer to family.

The article also pointed to Tata Consultancy Services, or TCS, an India-based global information technology services firm, which uses the work-from-anywhere model to tap talent for projects where it exists. The company, Choudhury wrote, had its eye on a niche labor market in Eastern Europe for the skilled financial analysts and data scientists there.

Remote work can be a challenge for managers, though, Choudhury and others on the SABEW panel noted.

Having face time or coaching opportunities with workers can be more difficult when they’re not in the office. Evaluating productivity can also be tougher.

While some companies have turned to monitoring software to gauge when remote workers are signed on or to nudge output, Choudhury says he’s not a fan of such an “Orwellian approach.” “It just defeats the purpose of flexibility,” he says.

With surveys predicting a significant amount of work will still occur remotely in the near term, Choudhury counsels embracing “the best of both worlds – trying to understand what is the best of remote, what is the best of the office, and how do organizations combine these two.”

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]

Categories: Business

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