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Stay-at-home orders could serve as an important test for the future of remote working

Stay-at-home orders could serve as an important test for the future of remote working
Posted at 10:51 AM, Mar 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-27 12:51:37-04

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com . See more 360 stories here .

DENVER -- With cities and states across the country issuing stay-at -home orders, millions of Americans are now working remotely.

The trend of remote working is nothing new; as technology has evolved and become more affordable, more people are telecommuting for work.

“For years we’ve seen the growing trend of remote work. We’ve seen it grow, I think, something like 159% in the last 10 years or so,” said Brie Reynolds, a career development manager for Flex Jobs.

Flex jobs is a job search platform that specializes in remote work. While some companies embrace the idea of telecommuting, others have been resistant to the idea.

“Even though we’ve had the capability to work remotely for a while, that shift in terms of managerial mindset and how you actually manage and what it means to work and where you can work, that has changed far more slowly,” Reynolds said.

However, with the novel coronavirus forcing more companies to temporarily shutter their brick-and -mortar businesses, employers are now relying on remote working to keep things moving forward.

With so many companies now being forced to consider their digital options, could remote work become a model for the future? Denver7 goes 360 to explore multiple perspectives on the issue.

The benefits of working remotely for employees

For employees, there can be a lot of benefits from working remotely. Along with having more autonomy and flexibility in their jobs, there could also be monetary advantages.

“From the workers perspective there are of course cost-saving benefits if they’re not commuting to the office every day, or if you don’t have to maintain a professional wardrobe or if you’re not going out to lunch and coffee,” Reynolds said.

Working from home means fewer people need to own cars and less money needs to be spent on gas and car maintenance, for instance. If employees are used to rely on public transit, they could save both money and time by working from home instead.

Some studies have shown that efficiency increases when employees work from home since there are fewer distractions.

“You’re more productive, you’re happier and more satisfied at work and more loyal, more likely to stay,” Reynolds said. “Overall, it just makes your quality of life better.”

There might also be fewer unscheduled absences from work since an employee who is feeling a little under the weather still might be able to get tasks done from home.

The downsides of working remotely for employees

However, working remotely does have its downsides. For employees, telecommuting can be socially isolating since there is a loss of interpersonal relationships with coworkers.

“We’re losing that relationship quality. That’s going to wear on people’s mental health, it is going to wear on bottom lines for people eventually and some jobs, and so we just need to be mindful of that,” said Apryl Alexander, a clinical assistant professor at the graduate school of professional psychology at DU.

Right now, Alexander says a lot of people are reporting feeling stressed because the remote work is a big adjustment to their lifestyles that they were given very little time to prepare for.

That’s why Alexander and other psychologists are trying to shift the mindset behind the COVID-19 pandemic away from the idea of social distancing and toward the idea of physical distancing.

“We don’t want to lose that social aspect, we want people to stay connected with their loved ones,” Alexander said.

Finding a work-life balance when both work and life occur from home can also be a challenge.

“Overwork is another one because when you’re working from home your work is with you all the time,” Reynolds said.

While some employees like the flexibility of dictating their own schedules and workflow, others can feel overwhelmed by it.

“How do you stay on task without having a supervisor monitor you,” Alexander said.

There also might be a cost burden for employees to supply their own computer, router and internet connections.

The benefits of working remotely for companies

For employers, there can also be quite a few benefits monetarily from allowing their employees to work from home.

“There are some cost savings that can be done on a business side if you don’t have to house all of your employees in a building and in offices. Lots of savings can be made if you can have some of them work from home,” said Mac Clouse, a professor of finance at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

Along with decreasing the need for office space, particularly in cities like Denver where office space can be very expensive, businesses that move to remote work might also be able to see savings when it comes to equipment.

“And often times when you go remote, you also go paperless because your communication is done digitally,” Reynolds says.

Employers are also less likely to see turnover from employees since the jobs add a little more flexibility for families and a better quality of life overall for employees, according to Reynolds, so companies would be able to keep their recruiting costs down.

Beyond the savings, companies who allow remote work can select their employees from a bigger pool of candidates since the job search wouldn’t necessarily be confined to a particular city or state.

It could also promote more diversity in the work force since candidates who live with certain disabilities or whose health or personal circumstances require them to stay home would be able to not only apply for but also successfully complete the job.

“This is going to be an experiment to see how we can do,” Clouse said. “The question now is to what extent can that work? At some point there may have to be some employee interaction, personal interaction, rather than just over the computer or over the phone or Internet.”

The benefits of working remotely for the environment

Along with employers and employees benefiting, there could also be some positive impact on the environment.

In China, air pollution levels dropped dramatically over the past several weeks as more people worked from home and fewer factories were running.

Air pollution levels and carbon emissions have both dropped by about a quarter. Meanwhile, the levels of nitrogen dioxide were down by as much as 30%, according to NASA.

Better air quality can also have health benefits for people living and working in the area.

In Italy, news reports show clearer waterways since there are fewer boats moving around in cities like Venice.

“The more people that work remotely the less air pollution there actually is because there’s fewer cars on the road, so people are not driving to and from work,” Reynolds said.

There is also less wear and tear on road infrastructure.

The downsides of working remotely for companies

Despite the cost savings, there can also be downsides for employers who allow telecommuting. First, there are security risks for companies.

“When you’re not actually on a company network, you open yourself up to a lot of dangers. The company can’t put a firewall on everyone’s home router, for instance, said Nathan Evan, a doctor of computer science at DU.

“I think the big concern people have is the hackability. So, if I’m sitting at Starbucks and I’m using an unsecured wireless network, it’s possible that an attacker could be watching all of the data that I’m transferring back-and-forth,” Evans said.

There are certain steps that employers can take to try to keep data safe like setting up a virtual privacy network and multi-factor authentication.

They can also give their employees company laptops with security software, but there is a cost associated with all of it.

Another potential downfall is in rural areas where the broadband infrastructure is not as robust. Working virtually could disproportionately negatively affect people who do not live in big cities.

Despite this, Reynolds says many cities and states are working on expanding their broadband infrastructure to communities to bring them up to par with other areas.

Another possible downside for employers could be a possible loss of productivity from some of their employees who take advantage of the telecommuting system. It’s also more difficult for employers to keep track of the time employees are actually spend working.

The future of remote work

COVID-19 has dramatically shifted the American workforce in recent weeks as cities and states work quickly to try to stop the spread of the virus.

The pandemic could also serve as a major test for the U.S. when it comes to the future of telecommuting. If companies see that this model works well over coming weeks and months, it could encourage businesses to move more of their employees to remote work.

If the coming weeks and months do not go well, this time could serve as a warning or deterrent for companies not to move to this model.

For employers and employees wondering whether this model would work for them in the long-term, Reynolds wants to keep in mind that there are more stressors currently than there would be in normal circumstances with spouses, roommates and children also being forced to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If we can come out of this at the end having really learned how remote works in a wide range of career fields and companies and how to do it well, that’s a good lesson to learn,” she said.