Is the five-day office week gone for good?

Most office workers are in no hurry to return to the office full time, even after the coronavirus is under control. But that does not mean they want to work from home forever. The future, a variety of new data shows, is likely to be workweeks split between office and home.

Recent surveys show that both employees and employers support this arrangement. And research suggests that a couple of days a week at each location is the magic number to reap the benefits of each arrangement while canceling out the negatives of both.

“You should never be thinking about full time or zero time,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University whose research has identified causal links between remote work and employee performance. “I’m a firm believer in post-COVID halftime in the office.”

According to a survey by Morning Consult, 47% of those working remotely say that once it is safe to return to work, their ideal arrangement would be to continue working from home one to four days a week. Forty percent would work from home every day, and just 14% would return to the office every day.

The group of workers that is able to work from home is likely to have more education, with higher incomes, and so far they have escaped the most severe job losses from the pandemic. That could change if the economy continues to suffer, which analysts said could affect work-from-home policies — say, for instance, that employers opt to make remote work permanent to cut real estate costs.

In the Survey of Business Uncertainty — which was conducted by the Atlanta Fed, Stanford and the University of Chicago — employers predicted that post-pandemic, 27% of their full-time employees would continue working from home, most for a few days a week. Other surveys of firms have shown that they expect at least 40% of employees to keep working remotely.

Across organizations, work was most effective when employees were home one or two days a week, according to research by Humu, a tech company.

“It creates a shift, where office time is for collaborative work, for innovative work, for having those meetings, and home time is for focused work,” said Stefanie Tignor, director of data and analytics at Humu.

Thinking has changed

Past experiments in remote work at Best Buy and Yahoo were ended because managers decided remote workers were not accountable enough and missed out on in-person collaboration.

But it’s hard to know if the effects would have been different had their competitors, partners and customers also been working from home. Plus, in the past few years, technology for videoconferencing and virtual collaboration has become more seamless, and, because of the shelter-at-home mandates, workers have become more comfortable in using it.

So far, the results of corporate America’s large-scale experiment on remote work have been positive, even with the enormous stresses of the pandemic, including shuttered schools.

In the Morning Consult survey, conducted June 16-20 with 1,066 Americans who said their jobs could be done remotely, nearly two-thirds said they had enjoyed working from home, and just 20% said they had not (the rest were neutral). Three-quarters are happy with how their companies have handled the transition, and 59% would be more likely to apply to a job that offered remote work.

Of the 87% who want to keep working from home, people ages 18-44 and women are slightly more likely to want this arrangement.

Myths exposed

The past few months suggest that some of the assumptions about the trade-offs of working away from the office are not always true.

One example is the belief that workers are more focused and productive at home, but more creative at the office. The thinking goes that the lack of distractions at home aids concentration, but that ideas bloom when people start impromptu conversations with co-workers.

In the Morning Consult survey, 49% of the respondents said they were more productive working from home compared with 32% who said they were not (19% did not know). Forty-four percent of respondents said the quality of their work had improved while working remotely during the pandemic, compared with 27% who said it had not and 29% who did not know.

But whether in-office work leads to more creativity is harder to measure. Studies of patent data have suggested that inventors benefit from being near one another, but some experts argue that remote work is good for idea generation, too, because it allows people to take breaks and think in silence.

Aaron Levie, chief executive of Box, which makes cloud collaboration software for businesses, said remote work had increased both productivity and innovation at his company. Instead of generating ideas with small groups in conference rooms or when people happen to run into one another, he said, the company is having conversations with larger and more diverse groups on Slack.

He told about a project in which “we’ve taken what would have been a five-to-10 person project to a 300-person idea generation machine, with people who never would have participated in this project, even interns,” he said. “It might have been the equivalent of 20 meetings in conference rooms when, in reality, a Slack channel with a few good ideas might make up for all the meetings.”

Box has announced that post-pandemic, the company will have a hybrid approach, with both remote and in-person work.

Some downsides of remote work persist. Most people miss the social connections at work. In a study Bloom made of a Chinese travel firm in which everyone worked from home, half of the workers wanted to return to the office. Their reasons were loneliness, stigma and the difficulties of getting promoted. These and other reasons are why Box and other firms want workers to eventually return in some capacity.

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