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Despite Reopenings, Many Employees Will Work Remotely into 2021 and Beyond

Only one-fifth of employers are providing tools for work-from-home employees

A woman wearing headphones is using a laptop and waving at the camera.

A majority of North American employers expect that most of their furloughed workers will return to work by the end of the first quarter of 2021. Nevertheless, more workers will continue working from home on a permanent basis than before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a July survey of 283 large employers conducted by consultancy Willis Towers Watson. The responding companies employ 4.4 million workers.

Those workers permanently laid off due to the pandemic, however, are less likely to return to work than those temporarily furloughed. Just 1 in 6 employers expect to rehire most of their laid-off workers by March 2021.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Remote Work

Remote Work Expectations

Employers expect that the proportion of their full-time employees who are working from home will level off at around 19 percent, which is less than half of early July levels (44 percent) but nearly three times what it was in 2019, before the pandemic (7 percent), Willis Towers Watson reported.

While employers expect to have significantly more remote workers in the future compared with last year, many have yet to develop policies to encourage working from home. The survey showed:

  • Just 2 in 10 respondents have provided tools and resources to employees who may work remotely long term, although two-thirds plan to or are considering doing so.
  • Only 1 in 10 have offered employees subsidies to manage the costs of working remotely, although nearly three times as many are considering doing so.

Employers will "need to adapt to having a larger percentage of remote workers, and this will fundamentally change their culture," said Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director at Willis Towers Watson.

"Senior leaders need to work together with HR, legal and IT teams to ensure there are proper resources to accommodate the implications of working from home," said Jeff Christianson, chief legal officer at Nintex, a business software firm. For example, "the IT department needs adequate infrastructure and personnel to accommodate the number of employees working at home, and the legal team needs to flag any applicable local law implications when employees work from home."

Another sign businesses need to adjust their practices to accommodate larger numbers of employees working from home: A July poll of 1,001 people in the U.S. working remotely since March due to COVID-19 found that nearly half (43 percent) had not taken part in remote training this year.

The results were released Aug. 5 by Clutch, a ratings platform for business service providers. Constructive remote training should be a top priority for employers, according to Kelsey McKeon, a content developer and marketer at Clutch. "All companies must know how to plan and implement employee training and development programs in a remote environment," she said. "Employee skill development makes companies stronger and employees more satisfied with their work."

Reimbursing Remote Workers' Expenses

As the COVID-19 crisis progressed, "common expenses changed from entertainment and business travel to submitting work from home essentials," said Kunal Verma, chief technology officer at AppZen, a software platform for finance teams.

Among the firm's clients, work-from-home expense claims were up 80 percent year over year in March, he noted. "With companies approving more home office setups, it is imperative companies reimburse employees in a timely manner so they are able to work safely and efficiently from home," he advised.

Many companies have opted to create expense categories to track spending related to remote work and to allow their accounts payable departments to reimburse these purchases faster, Verma noted.

A Sample Policy

The Society for Human Resource Management's sample telecommuting policy and procedure template provides for companies on a case by case basis to:

  • Determine, with information supplied by employees and their supervisors, the appropriate equipment needs (including hardware, software, modems, phone and data lines, and other office equipment) for each telecommuting arrangement.
  • Supply employees with appropriate office supplies as deemed necessary.
  • Reimburse employees for business-related expenses, such as phone calls and shipping costs, that are reasonably incurred in carrying out the employee's job.

Under the sample policy, employers are not be responsible for costs associated with the setup of an employee's home office, such as remodeling, furniture or lighting, nor for repairs or modifications to the home office space.

Mark Stevenson of Smart HR, an Alexandria, Va.-based consulting firm, said some of his clients are covering 50 percent of staff members' home Internet access and a portion of their cellphone services. Others are not reimbursing for those fees and are encouraging employees to see it as a trade-off for saved commuting expenses.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Return to Work

How Workers Feel About Returning to Work

According to consultancy PwC's June survey of 1,200 office workers who were remotely working, 72 percent wanted to continue working away from the office for at least two days a week, while a third (32 percent) said they'd prefer never to go to the office.

Background screening services firm JDP surveyed 2,000 U.S. workers about their feelings on returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. The June poll of 2,038 employees who typically work in an office showed that:

  • 86 percent of respondents favor a staggered four-day work week to limit the amount of people in the office.
  • 69 percent said they trust their co-workers to respect their personal boundaries regarding COVID-19.
  • 63 percent said they have issues being tested by their employer for the virus or for antibodies.
  • 62 percent think people who return to the office earlier will be favored by management.

When asked about precautionary office measures, workers prefer:

  1. No handshakes, hugs or fist bumps.
  2. Limited people in the office.
  3. Keeping workstations 6 feet apart.
  4. Limited people in the elevators. 

Related SHRM Articles:

Benefits Considerations for Onboarding Furloughed and Laid Off Employees, SHRM Online, July 2020

DOL Issues Return-to-Work Guidance Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, SHRM Online, July 2020

Out-of-State Remote Work Creates Tax Headaches for Employers, SHRM Online, June 2020

Rethinking Expenses as Remote Work Continues Through the Summer, SHRM Online, May 2020


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