Companies Advised to ‘Be Very Cautious’ Before Permanently Embracing Remote Work

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – One of the most lasting effects of the pandemic will likely be the shift to remote work. While it’s been the salvation for many organizations faced with lockdowns and other restrictions, experts are now looking at the potential impacts of remote work for the long-term.

Panelists in a pair of recent webinars looked at the expectations for remote work going forward and the implications for the economy, workers’ compensation, and the nature of work.

“We don’t know 5 years from now, when the economy is back to normal, when people don’t know each other as well since they didn’t have the experience of working together in an office for a while, if the same level of collaboration and performance and innovation will remain the same,” said Gad Levanon, VP of Labor Markets for The Conference Board. “It may very well be the case that remote work works even in normal times; but I think we should be open to the possibility that in the next decades that many companies will conclude that remote work does not work as well as expected and maybe there will be a policy reversal at that point, which would not be easy because we are expecting that in the coming years millions of Americans will move further away from city centers to the periphery of metro areas or even outside metro areas and the willingness to go back to the daily commute would be too hard to stomach. So we just think that companies should be very cautious about that.”

Expectations

Prior to COVID-19, remote workers comprised about 6 percent of the workforce, or up to 25 percent when those working occasionally from home were included. That percentage jumped to 75 percent of office-based and professional occupations at the height of the lockdown, said Donna Glenn, chief actuary for NCCI.

“It’s come down since May, as many of us are headed back to the office,” Glenn said. “But it’s still high at more than 50 percent and the work environment changes in 2020 are likely going to persist in 2021 and well beyond. The economic impacts include the changing dynamics of city centers but also the tangential businesses, and many of them are small businesses related to the office environment and commuting. And those may be changed permanently.”

The types of workers’ compensation injuries may change due to the shift toward more remote work. Office/clerical workers represented 50 percent of workers’ compensation exposure but only 11 percent of premium, Glenn explained. Their injuries were predominantly slips and falls and strains, and were lower costs. “We are expecting the types of losses to change, potentially more repetitive motion strains, ergonomic type strains, and maybe more slips and falls. But it will take a significant shift before a meaningful impact to workers’ compensation results can be observed.”

Pros, Cons of Remote Work

The move to remote work has been largely touted as a positive for businesses. Productivity was maintained or even increased and many workers have expressed their desire to continue working from home even after the pandemic. There are also significant economic advantages.

“There is less need for office space, rent goes down, you have a much larger labor pool – you can hire people in cheaper markets, and there are other benefits,” Levanon said.

“if you’re a hiring manager and open to remote work flexibility, this is a great time to look for talent, look for skills that are well beyond your geographical area,” added Amy Lui Abel, VP of Human Capital Research for The Conference Board. “Many more organizations in the U.S. are willing to hire those who are going to be virtual, remote predominantly … It’s great for recruiting because you can just source more talent in a different way, geographically. It just opens up the possibilities a lot more.”

However, for all the benefits of remote work, there is a price.

“There has been dramatic impact on our workforce and our workers from a mental health and wellbeing perspective and it’s not all good news,” Lui Abel said. “We’ve seen a huge demand to talk about this topic, to learn about it.”

Younger workers are especially affected, Lui Abel said. Those between 18 and 25 are “really suffering on the mental health spectrum than the other age groups we’ve seen.”

The amount of stress among many workers can be seen in the levels of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, which are “through the roof,” Lui Abel said. “Eighty-eight percent of workers [in a recent survey] said they had ‘moderate’ to ‘extreme’ stress at the height of the pandemic. How can they be productive if they are under extreme stress?”

What organizations can and many are doing are finding new strategies to address the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. Flexibility is especially key, as many remote workers must deal with childcare responsibilities in addition to work. Other options are offering additional time off or changing work arrangements. C-Suite members who engage in story telling is another idea some companies are doing.

“Having leaders tell a story about their own challenges or how organizations are respecting and treating employees – we need to do these different things so our workforce understands we are thinking about this,” Lui Abel said. “We need to learn to mitigate [the mental health and wellbeing challenges] in a virtual way, a remote way.”

One company she noted has embraced gratitude, with ‘Thank You Thursdays.’

“Every Thursday [workers] send out a short email to colleagues of ‘who we want to thank this week and why,’” she said. “It helps us from the loneliness, the distress. This is well beyond our EAP (employee assistance programs). Many companies had EAPs before. This pandemic has required more than just the EAPs.”

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