Employers Face Decisions Over Keeping Telework Options

The COVID-19 pandemic let millions work remotely for the first time

June 3, 2020
working from home

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic shutdown left millions of workers unemployed throughout the U.S. Many of those who kept their jobs did so by transitioning to working from home, and many of them now would like to keep doing so, either permanently or at least on an hoc basis as the economy reopens.

Employers, however, may be reluctant to give more employees that option, according to research by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). That could be short-sighted.

"The current crisis is a story of not only higher unemployment, but also altered employment," said Trent Burner, vice president for research at SHRM. "As workers adjust to a new normal and look ahead to a post-quarantine world, the American workplace is in the midst of unprecedented change."

  SHRM Resource Spotlight
Remote Work

Hesitant Employers

While some employees are happy to stop working from home and to return to the worksite, others would like their organizations to continue allowing remote-work opportunities.

Employers, however, view things differently. Most said they expect their organizations' remote work to return to pre-coronavirus levels after the crisis subsides, according to a survey of 1,000 HR professionals in the U.S. by SHRM and Oxford Economics, a global advisory firm. About 3 percent of respondents said their salaried employees were working remotely when the year began. That number rose to 64 percent by April.

Inflexibility toward continuing to allow remote work could drive employees away as the job market recovers, however. Organizations that embrace remote work when it is practical to do so may become more-popular workplaces for current and potential employees, Burner noted.

"American workers take benefits more seriously than ever before, and remote work has become an integral component of today's benefits offerings," he said. "It must be treated as such."

"Before the pandemic there were always managers who claimed that this job or that job could never be done remotely," SHRM CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, said recently. "Now, they can't say that because it's working. And not for a week because of a hurricane, but for months now."

Update: Less-Hesitant Employers

In a subsequent poll by SHRM, 68 percent of organizations report they probably or definitely will adopt broader or more flexible work from home policies for all workers—and 73 percent of large organizations (with 500 or more employees) will offer greater work from home policies.

Over one in four organizations will probably or definitely allow workers:

  • Who did not previously work remotely to do so permanently (26 percent).
  • To work from home full-time through the rest of 2020 (29 percent).

This survey was fielded to a random sample of SHRM members from May 13 through May 20, 2020, with responses from 1,087 HR professionals.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Return to Work

Balancing Onsite and Remote Workers

The development of policies about telework during the COVID-19 pandemic depends on understanding the unique needs of your company's workforce, said Mike Bokina, vice president and head of human resources at engineering and technology firm Siemens USA.

"At Siemens, we have people craving to get back to the office–tired of the day-to-day at home and who are comfortable going into an office situation, given our return-to-office protocols," Bokina said. "At the other end of the spectrum, we have people who are wondering why it is required to ever go back into an office if they have been productive at home. And finally, we have the thousands of employees deemed essential and who have been working onsite throughout the pandemic to keep the lights on for millions of Americans."

A diverse mix of workers requires Bokina and his HR team to address the differences between "those who can work from home all the way to those who may benefit from an office environment, where face-to-face collaboration is the norm. I imagine many companies big and small will be in similar situations," he said.

"In some cases, managers who prefer employees interact face to face have formed these habits over time," Bokina said. "But equipping managers from any generation on 'the now of work' will be the key for companies' success post-COVID-19."

[SHRM members-only content: Telecommuting Policy and Procedure]

Re-Envisioning the Future of Work

"We shouldn't have to tie work to a physical office, or even to time," said Peter Jackson, CEO of virtual software company Bluescape. "This pandemic is proving that technology can enable us to measure work based on productivity instead of a 40-hour workweek regimen."

The future of work, he added, will be "employees accomplishing their responsibilities on their own terms and working collaboratively without having to depend on geographical restrictions."

Company leaders should "give people the option to work where they feel most comfortable," he advised. "It will be all about balance: making employees feel safe and valued while also ensuring the business is achieving its goals."

Related SHRM Articles:

COVID-19 and Deciding Who Continues Working from Home, SHRM Online, July 2020

Viewpoint: How to Manage Employees Who Struggle to Perform Remotely, SHRM Online, May 2020

Remote Workers Experiencing Burnout, SHRM Online, May 2020

COVID-19 Is Creating Telework Converts, SHRM Online, May 2020



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