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Marissa Mayer may have been onto something when she banned remote work at Yahoo seven years ago.
A survey published in April from economist Erik Brynjolfsson and colleagues showed nearly 50% of the U.S. workforce had gone remote as a result of the coronavirus. Based on a few months of early data, companies are now considering a major cultural change by instituting permanent work-from-home policies. But corporations as productive, well-oiled remote machines could easily turn out to be a pipe dream.
in May said it expects it could have half of its employees working remotely in the next five to 10 years—a policy Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said he thinks will be “the most forward leaning” at his company’s scale. He has cited stable productivity from at-home employees so far and the promise of untapped, potentially less costly remote talent as compelling benefits. Others weighing or instituting permanent remote policies include Nationwide,
Early data certainly suggests some upside: Freelancing platform Upwork has reported one-third of hiring managers in two surveys found productivity increased in April from November as a result of forced remote work, bolstered by the lack of commute and fewer unnecessary meetings. Similarly, a recent survey by Facebook found more than half of employees reported being at least as productive at home as in the office.
But there are concerns, too: Mr. Zuckerberg said last month that half of his employees “really just wanted to get back to the office as soon as possible,” and suggested a lesser feeling of alignment without free-flowing conversations and in-person connections.
“It’s unclear at this point whether we’re just all drafting off of existing bonds that have developed before it started,” he said.
General attitudes toward remote work have been changing. Ms. Mayer’s move was controversial back in 2013, though she voiced legitimate concerns over lost productivity and connectivity. Today, working from home is considered less a boondoggle and more a flexible arrangement that can, at the very least, save employees time and money.
But even some remote-work pioneers are wary. Tim Ferriss, the author who championed the benefits of working from home in his 2007 bestseller “The 4-Hour Workweek,” cautions that companies shouldn’t assume employees under lockdown “will be equally productive once
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lunches with friends, happy-hour drinks and other temptations return to day-to-day life.”
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Mr. Zuckerberg said he doesn’t expect to realize significant savings as a result of the shift because remote workers will need added infrastructure at home and will likely have to travel more. He also said he may need to hire additional employees to complete the same tasks if productivity declines at home.
A permanent shift isn’t appealing to all companies—even to Facebook’s social-media peers.
Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel says he is “avoiding making sweeping statements that project far into the future in such a rapidly evolving situation.”
Major corporations rushing to turn lockdown lemons into lemonade could get hit with a sour aftertaste.
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