If there’s even a small silver lining to the upheaval we’ve experienced in 2020, it’s that many workers’ long-held desire to work remotely has come to fruition.

While it certainly didn’t happen the way anyone thought it would, the COVID-19 shelter in place sent the number of people working from home skyrocketing—from just 3.4% of Americans who were able to do so before COVID-19 to 34% of the population who previously worked from offices were forced to work remotely at the height of lockdowns.

There’s never been a better opportunity to test workers’ and managers’ expectations and beliefs about remote work against reality. While many employees have long expressed a desire for more flexible working arrangements prior to COVID-19, 80% of workers said if given a choice between two jobs, they’d turn down the one that didn’t allow for remote work

Meanwhile, managers have been more skeptical about the benefits of working from home. Before COVID-19, not only were some businesses slow to allow their employees to work remotely, but some companies, including the Bank of New York Mellon Corp., IBM, and Yahoo, even reversed previous WFH policies to reduce or disallow the ability to work from home. 

Chief among the reservations many managers held about remote work was the belief that, without supervision, many employees would slack off. Workers, meanwhile, said allowing them to work more flexibly would help them to achieve better work-life balance. 

The ultimate opportunity to test WFH in action

Lockdowns put an end to the theoretical debates, forcing many businesses to allow remote work literally overnight. This provided the unique opportunity to test out people’s expectations about remote work against the realities of doing so, revealing both successes and unanticipated challenges.

Nearly half a year into this extensive WFH experiment, we have ample data on what employers and employees really think about remote work. And with 54% of finance leaders who say they plan to make remote a permanent option, and a whopping 98% of employees who say they’d like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers, it bears paying close attention to people’s experience in order to avoid known pitfalls of remote work in the future and make working from home more productive and engaging.

What employers think of remote work

Before COVID-19 sent many workers home, employers were concerned that shifting work away from the office would have a major impact on productivity. In one 2019 survey, 82% of managers were concerned about reduced productivity and focus. Another 70% were also worried a remote workforce would make it hard to maintain company culture.

These fears, however, haven’t played out. In the Global Work from Home Experience Survey conducted three months into lockdown, 70% of business leaders said their teams’ performance was the same—if not better—working from home.

Fewer than 10% of managers said remote work had a large impact on things like on-time delivery of work, the overall accomplishment of team goals, employee productivity, quality of work, and other key measures that align to business success. Meanwhile, research from PwC found that 44% of employers believed their teams had become even more productive during COVID-19 shelter in place.

In fact, managers’ experiences with WFH have been so successful that many are doubling down and actively exploring ways to make working remotely even better moving forward. Reflecting on the challenges employers are seeing, PwC found that 57% plan to offer greater flexibility in work hours, and more than half are investing in better hardware and equipment, better mobile experiences, better security, and helping employees build networks and relationships. To maintain engagement remotely, managers are also looking at improving employee experiences, training, and learning.

What employees think of remote work

Though managers worried workers might shirk their duties, the experience of many employees working from home has shown quite the opposite. In fact, the average workday in the US has increased by a whopping three hours during the lockdown, more than in countries such as Canada and the UK.

Time spent working may be up, but it’s a double-edged sword: 69% of homebound workers said in July that they’re experiencing burnout (a nearly 20% jump from just two months prior), and 59% say they’re taking less time off.

Not all types of work are seeing a boost from remote work though. According to the Global Work from Home Experience Survey, employees said they performed better at home than the office when it came to minimizing disruptions and working on tasks that need deeper and more creative thinking and focus. But a majority said the office is more conducive to collaboration and teamwork, coaching and mentoring, and other aspects of work that require interaction with coworkers.

Employees are also worried about their relationships with their managers. Roughly a third of workers fear that due to reduced visibility while working from home, their managers won’t see the full extent of their contributions—and that this could have detrimental effects on their career trajectories. More than a quarter of employees also say it’s been harder to have difficult conversations or to flag concerns while working remotely.

Emerging themes about remote work

Comparing the employer and employee remote work experience, some commonalities begin to emerge. Both groups agree that employees are working longer and harder, turning one common argument against remote work on its head. 

But this doesn’t mean employees are necessarily working smarter: the need to use more tools, such as unified communications and file sharing solutions, to perform many everyday tasks adds friction to workloads without driving value. Considering that the typical employee wasted up to an hour each day simply navigating between essential workplace apps even before the coronavirus pandemic moved more functions online, some of those extra hours likely go to managing the increased tech load.

And not only can communication challenges contribute to this drag, but they can also result in frustration and feelings of disconnection with the company and one’s teammates, ultimately hindering both individual and company-wide performance. If remote work is the way of the future—and all signs suggest that it is—these are problems that must be overcome.

The right tools to improve the remote work experience

As businesses invest in the future, many are wisely considering the experiences of managers and employees working from home in 2020 in order to make improvements. PwC’s US Remote Work Survey found that for many, this includes investment in infrastructure that will improve employees’ key needs, including fostering teamwork and engagement. 

While 2020 was a blind and unprecedented experiment in working from home, moving forward, businesses will have the benefit of hindsight. To address common challenges, one top priority should be implementing technical solutions that ease known pain points. A unified communications solution like RingCentral provides a boost to many work functions—but especially to those that are more likely to lag when teams are apart. With team messaging, video conferencing, and cloud phone, RingCentral brings the best of the office to wherever employees are working.