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A Paradigm Shift: The Structure of the Remote Workplace Revolution

Why it took a pandemic for us to work remotely.

Key points

  • The Covid-19 lockdown created a major change in moving away from the workplace to one’s home.
  • Working remotely brought numerous benefits, including productivity and satisfaction for both the employer and employee.
  • Yet, for some employers transitioning to “work anywhere anytime” as the norm will be met with difficulty and resistance.

Few would dispute that the pandemic has exerted a global tsunami of change in social interaction. One consequence of the pandemic lockdowns and social distancing is the forced change within the workplace. In many work settings, spanning a myriad of organizations (e.g., tech companies, real estate, financial and other businesses to telehealth), there has been a substantial shift from the office to remote work. The “Covidian” experiment with forced remote work has produced data to support the contention that handing over control of their workday to the employee is good for both the employee and the employer.

The Benefits of Working from Home

For the employee, remote work has the potential to enhance the negotiation of the “work-life balance.” Working from home cuts out commuting time, which for some added two to three or more hours to the workday. It also allows flexibility for the worker to address childcare and eldercare and small, but cumulatively big daily living obligations (such as, grocery shopping, laundry, walking the dog) into the workday. All of this allows for the development of what psychologists label an “internal locus of control,” meaning that we control our destiny, an important psychological facet to enhance motivation. Working from home also means “work from anywhere.” Employees can move from expensive urban centers to cheaper geographic areas and homeownership.

For the employer, there are data demonstrating that remote work increases productivity. “Prodoscore” is one company that analyzed 7,000 employee records using software that tracks productivity. They found that in the period between January 2020 and January 2021, employees were 200 percent more productive and worked longer days post- than pre-pandemic. The availability of remote work can also be viewed as a benefit that employers can use to both retain and recruit employees. Younger workers question the tradition of the five-day 40-hour office-based workweek. Technology has grown and is developing more applications to enhance remote work.

Will Remote Work Continue?

Despite findings supporting worker satisfaction and increases in productivity with remote work, some employers look askance at continuing remote work as a post-pandemic option. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted some managers questioning the commitment of remote employees. Fuhrmans (2021) remarked that one CEO of a large financial firm characterized remote work as an aberration requiring quick correction; others hinted that remote workers may not be positioned to advance in their organizations.

According to one study, however, it seems that most employees may question the need for an office setting to be productive. Speaking to this point is the survey conducted by Ernst & Young (EY) in March 2021. EY received over 16,000 responses from 16 countries and encompassing 23 industries. Nine out of 10 of those surveyed wanted to have flexibility as to when and where they worked; 67 percent did not view productivity as linked to the location of work and experienced improvements in the organizational culture. In addition, 54 percent of those surveyed responded that they would consider leaving their job if post-COVID-19 flexibility were not continued. And notably, millennials, who will remain in the workforce into the next decade and beyond, were twice as likely to respond that they would quit if flexibility were removed.

Paradigm Shifts Can Be Revolutionary

Why did it take a global pandemic to shift to a concept of remote work, even though the technology for remote work has existed for many years? In addition, why is there resistance in some quarters to continue the practice post-pandemic despite evidence for positive benefits? The work of physicist Thomas Kuhn, well over a half-century ago, may provide the answer. Kuhn introduced a novel concept of how new scientific frameworks develop through “paradigm shifts.” The radical observation was that new scientific concepts arrived not in an orderly and linear fashion based on a gradual accumulation of knowledge; rather, they came in sudden breakthrough moments that were disruptive, challenged accepted perspectives or theories, and led to “scientific revolutions.” Paradigm shifts are transformative; not just new ideas, but ones that are radical and abrupt.

Change is not easy. The post-pandemic remote worksite, one that is no longer a forced necessity, will present employers and employees with challenges. Remote work reflects a “Kuhnian” paradigm shift. It is a structural revolution in how we think of ourselves as employers and employees. It is transformative. It is radical. It has been abrupt. Long-held beliefs are not easily relinquished. As with many scientific revolutions that break long-held concepts, the remote workplace is also a psychological paradigm shift of seismic proportions. It will be confronted and resisted by those who perhaps prefer the old way, or need the office for social interaction, or simply do not trust that employees can be motivated to work away from the watchful eyes of a manager. Therefore, from a psychological perspective, all these elements indicate that transitioning to a new idea of the remote workplace as the norm will be met with difficulty and resistance. As the incoming data seemed to suggest, perhaps this will occur more so for the employer than the employee.

References

Ernst & Young Global Limited. (2021, May 12). More than half of employees globally would quit their jobs if not provided post-pandemic flexibility, EY survey finds. https://www.ey.com/en_gl/news/2021/05/more-than-half-of-employees-globa…

Fuhrmans, V. (2021, May 24). Bosses question eagerness of remote employees. Wall Street Journal.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.

Levitsky, A. (2021, March 16). The workday grew almost 80 minutes longer in 2020 — but workers were 200% more productive. Silicon Valley Business Journal. https://www.bizjournals.com/bizwomen/news/latest-news/2021/03/the-workd…

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