Are we witnessing the end of remote work?

For the past two decades, remote work seemed to represent the way of the future. As of 2016, 43% of Americans surveyed worked from home at least some of the time, signaling the growing demand for flexible work arrangements and work-life balance. Technologies such as smartphones, email, video conferencing platforms, messaging tools, and project management software made it increasingly easy to collaborate with colleagues around the globe. 

These technologies also gave rise to a new generation of digital nomads and solopreneurs, professionals who could consult, contribute, and create for clients regardless of location. The effects of the economic downturn combined with tech advancements inspired millions of people to strike out on their own, which is why 35% of the workforce is now comprised of freelancers and 44 million Americans operate side hustles in addition to their day jobs. 

Companies embraced remote work policies for employees and contractors as a means of keeping workers satisfied and reducing their overhead expenses. After all, happy employees are productive employees. What difference does it make where they’re located? 

Turns out, quite a lot, and the remote work trend now appears to be headed in reverse. Marissa Mayer’s decision to end Yahoo’s work-from-home policy in 2013 drew considerable criticism, but it also seems to have opened the gates for other companies to follow suit. IBM announced earlier this year that thousands of remote workers would need to report to an office, and Reddit and Bank of America have scaled back their teleworking programs as well. 

Why the change of course on remote work?

Up to 90% of workers desire the flexibility of remote work policies, which give them more autonomy over their schedules and working habits. In theory, remote workers are happier and more productive because they can maintain their careers without sacrificing precious time with their children and loved ones. Remote work allows working parents in particular greater flexibility in how they balance their professional responsibilities with their familial obligations. 

But from an employer’s perspective, remote work simply doesn’t add up – at least not for all employees. While it might make sense to work virtually with contractors and other outsourcing vendors, companies such as Yahoo and IBM decided that digital communication is simply no substitute for in-person collaboration. Tech companies that thrive on innovation to stay competitive must move quickly on new ideas, and many leaders have found that the best ideas stem from spontaneous, face-to-face conversations. A chance encounter around the water cooler (or the ping-pong table or nap pods) can spark discussions and problem-solving sessions that lead to the company’s next big idea.

Some companies have found that remote work arrangements afford employees a little too much flexibility. One business owner discontinued his company’s work-from-home policy after some workers became difficult to reach during work hours or refused to come into the office due to personal priorities. Remote work only works if people are actually working, and you can lose hours just trying to track down a colleague who’s gone MIA or who takes an entire workday to respond to emails. 

The remote work trend isn’t dead

Given that most workers value work-life fulfillment and personal autonomy, employers know that demanding that everyone work the traditional 9-5 schedule is unappealing, not to mention impractical. Employees who need little coworker interaction to get their work done, as is the case with client-facing employees or certain writing jobs, will gain little from being in the office every day. But those who regularly collaborate with team members or are integral to product and strategy development are likely less productive working from home than they would be in the office. 

Employers recognize that workers fall on a spectrum, which may explain why many companies are taking a hybrid approach to workplace flexibility. They might require employees to be in-house three days of the week but allow them to work remotely on the remaining two. Some create flexibility by allowing employees to set their own schedules. Letting employees determine their work hours accommodates their need for autonomy and enables them to structure their days around their professional and personal priorities. 

Codifying work-from-home rules seems to be the best way to find the happy medium. Companies that allow some degree of flexibility in people’s working habits benefit from laying out clear expectations for availability, responsiveness, and output when they’re out of the office. Because in-house employees’ productivity can suffer if the work environment feels like a ghost town, employers may also want to establish set days when different departments can work from home so as to maintain a vibrant office atmosphere. 

What does the decline in remote work mean for freelancers and solopreneurs?

Working from home (or a co-working space or a coffee shop) is inherent to how freelancers and solopreneurs operate, but they need clients to make a living. Independent workers who are worried about a shift in their client relationships can accommodate the trend by offering to travel for in-person meetings and project launches. They might also consider building on-site work into their arrangements. Those who have especially flexible circumstances could work in clients’ offices a few days a week or for the duration of a several months-long project. At the very least, a willingness to travel for meetings and events may assuage clients’ fears about lost productivity and innovation opportunities. 

Remote work is evolving. For the first time in history, millions of people were able to build their careers outside standard office environments, and both employees and employers alike rushed to embrace that opportunity. Now we’re seeing that a more nuanced approach is needed and that the right way to work depends on your role and your circumstances. But it’s clear that tech has allowed us to expand our concept of work beyond traditional paradigms, and whether you’re in the office or teleconferencing from your house, that is real progress.