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How Different Perspectives Affect the Debate on Remote Work

Are workers back in the office 'suckers'? Are those still working from home 'slackers'?

A man sitting in front of a computer with a group of people on a video call.

​Technology developed in the past two decades has enabled many employees to work from home or other remote environments. In particular, laptop computers and wireless Internet connections with virtual private networks (VPNs) have created opportunities for people to complete their tasks in many different physical locations.

Despite this, remote work had not been the norm prior to 2020. Even when some high-profile companies ventured down this path, the experiment often ended on a CEO's whim. As one example, the work-from-home program at Yahoo lasted from 2007 until 2013. And importantly, the decision to scrap it did not appear to be based on evidence of the program's failure, but on a belief in the intangible benefits of in-person interactions.

Regardless of these early setbacks in the movement toward remote work, continued advances in technology and more frequent (though brief) employee experiences (e.g., while on sick leave) positioned the workforce for early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a rapid, large-scale experiment with the practice. By October 2020, Pew Research determined, 71 percent of employees with jobs that could be done remotely were working from home all or most of the time—a marked increase from the 23 percent who worked remotely before the pandemic.

Because the threat from COVID-19 has waned, some employees have returned to normal onsite work, many have partially returned (e.g., with limited specified days in the office) and some have not returned at all. According to the Kastle Back to Work Barometer, the U.S. weekday building access rate for September 2022 was less than half the rate prior to March 2020. It remains to be seen if employees will ever come back in numbers similar to pre-COVID-19 days.

Objective Versus Subjective Factors

Despite the movement toward remote work for many employees, lots of jobs cannot be done remotely. For example, blue-collar and health care workers, as well as others deemed "essential" during the pandemic, never got the opportunity to be away from their normal work environments, even as they saw friends and family have that experience.

It is tough to make a strong objective argument against remote work. Indeed, most studies indicate improvements in job performance and productivity during remote work. See, for example, a meta-analysis of telecommuting before the pandemic (Gajendran and Harrison, 2007), as well as gains measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics after the pandemic struck.

Subjective factors—organizational culture, strategic issues, employees' and other stakeholders' perceptions—are also important and should be considered in discussions of remote work. Many people have strong feelings and beliefs about its appropriateness and viability, whether based in objective research or not.

Surveying Employees' Perceptions of Remote Work

A SHRM survey on remote work from April 2022 found that there are huge differences in how remote work is generally perceived by other employees, depending on their own work situation. The findings represent an evaluation of these perceptions. The study involved 1,702 participants from a broad range of jobs and industries, of whom 457 were fully remote, 510 were fully onsite and the rest were some combination of remote and onsite.

When asked about how many hours remote employees work, 44 percent of onsite workers believed remote employees work fewer hours than onsite workers; however, only 8 percent of remote workers shared that belief. Similarly, when asked about remote workers' productivity, 35 percent of onsite workers believed remote workers are less productive than onsite workers; only 5 percent of remote workers shared that belief.

These differences are massive and reveal major disconnects in how remote workers are viewed—employee perspectives largely unstated until now.

Slackers or Suckers?

To put it in clear language, these results indicate that traditional onsite workers see remote workers as "slackers" who don't put in the same time or effort required to do a good job. On the other hand, the vast majority of remote workers surveyed—82 percent—believe that the requirement to work in an office makes no sense when work can be done remotely. These remote workers view onsite workers as "suckers" who are forced into positions that waste time and money, minimize their flexibility, and harm their quality of life.

The different belief systems revealed in the research findings seem to be playing out in both boardroom and lunchroom discussions. Organizational leaders and executives are likely members of the group of survey participants working fully onsite, whose perceptions are that remote work does not equate to hard and productive work.

More Research Needed

It is important to note that real (versus perceived) differences in job performance for remote workers have not been established. It could be that traditional in-person work environments are more conducive to effectiveness and success for job roles that rely on such factors as brainstorming and close teamwork. But we need to know for sure. Good empirical research can address this important topic. It will take some time. SHRM hopes to figure out the truth by highlighting such studies and ensuring that the public finds out about the results.

Another source for guidance on remote work is the SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge (SHRM BASK), the foundational document of SHRM certification, particularly the Relationship Management and Consultation behavioral competencies. Workforce Management and Managing a Global Workforce, two functional areas of the SHRM BASK's technical competency, HR Expertise, are also relevant. 

Mark Smith, Ph.D., is director of HR Thought Leadership for SHRM Research.


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