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Remote Work: Revolution or Devolution?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill “Skip” Powers
April 26, 2024

Throughout my career, I have doggedly researched, published and extolled the value of remote and telework, focusing my doctoral research on this subject to validate this expertise (and the forthcoming soliloquy).

The current Remote Work Revolution and Devolution are discouraging, void of science and laced with inconsistencies. Both public and private sectors seem determined to devolve best practices despite the absence of scientific studies to support claims that collaboration suffers under the guise that physical presence equals productivity. WRONG! 

In 24 months, we morphed from hyping the hybrid wave to “Corporate Culture Pledges” that requires employees to have “cameras on” that measure employee productivity through the “Red, Yellow, Green” dots that appear on an MS Teams platform. 

Hybrid solutions demonstrate(d) value for both the employer (lower turnover and operating costs) and the employee (real work-life balance). The pandemic forced remote work, revealing its benefits. Yet, post-pandemic, political pressures aim to revert to old norms in this Remote Work Devolution, fueled by developers that are fueling politicians to introduce H.R. 139 “Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems” (SHOW UP) Act, which will prevent agencies from cementing pandemic-era telework policies for the federal workforce. 

This regression means costly commutes, lost productivity and ignored employee well-being. It’s time to reject this backward shift and recognize remote work’s vital role in organizational success and employee health. What then, is the allure to return to outdated models?

Another compelling argument to bolster remote work is its environmental impact. The daily commute is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate and environmental degradation. By embracing alternative work solutions, organizations can significantly reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to a more sustainable future.

Recently, in addition to 180 minutes of total commuting time for my twice-daily 46-mile one-way commute, I “contributed” to failed urban planning practices by spending $44 in tolls and parking fees (ironically to the same leased government office building I am assigned)! This is NOT sustainable!

Why have we devolved into a world fixated on return to archaic office practices? Here in the National Capital Region, it is derived from a strong lobby of developers and a mayor in an urban setting that has established their fragile economic foundation to suckle solely from a white-collar workforce (federal workers in the case of the National Capital Region)! The Chamber of Commerce statistics on the uptick in revenue to suburban businesses should be included in the conversation. Follow the money from developers to political PACs, and you can see the derivation fueling the Remote Work Revolution!

Enter stage right—the emergence of the next crisis on the horizon (one I published and wrote about in the 2010 Succession Crisis)—knowledge void! The Remote Work Devolution will harm retention rates, limit talent access and worsen environmental impact. Yet, organizations cling to outdated beliefs about productivity and resist change. This column urges embracing remote work’s benefits to stay competitive.

With an exodus of 3:1 (according to some statistics), that tacit and explicit knowledge void will be much more costly than the tolls, parking and lost productivity to departments and agencies. It will take years to refortify and rebuild a world-class workforce poised to meet the challenges of the American people (dare I say, from another city or setting outside of the National Capital Region Mothership)! The result: knowledge crisis!

Why the reluctance? One word: control. The outdated belief that “if I can’t see you, I can’t manage you” still prevails in many organizations (nay, inept managers who cling to presence = productivity). Employers fear that remote work will lead to decreased productivity and collaboration. But is this fear justified, or is it an exaggerated claim born by developers and urban planners?

Let’s debunk the myth that physical presence equates to productivity. Studies have shown remote workers are often more productive than their office-bound counterparts. A study by Harvard Business Review found that remote workers reported higher levels of job satisfaction and were 15 percent more productive than their in-office counterparts. Further, a meta-analysis found remote work offers employees greater autonomy and flexibility, increasing retention rates and job productivity by some estimates to be as high as 30 percent! Actuaries pay heed…these are staggering numbers!   

Remote work does not hinder collaboration! With the right tools, virtual teams collaborate effectively, regardless of location. Remote work dismantles geographical constraints, enabling access to a diverse global talent pool. Let’s harness this innovation as a knowledge-building commodity, not a farcical and fabricated detriment!

Of course, there are challenges associated with remote work, particularly in terms of maintaining real work-life balance (avoiding hyper-connectivity). However, these challenges can be mitigated through proactive measures such as regular check-ins, virtual team-building activities and leaders who practice and promote these norms!

Remote work is a fundamental shift in how competitive advantage will be won in the 21st century. Organizations must recognize the benefits of increased productivity, higher retention rates and a more diverse and inclusive workforce. It’s time to ditch the office-centric mindset and embrace the future of work. Lay down your arms of resistance to the Remote Work Revolution and embrace its merits and tangible capabilities!  

Author: Dr. Bill “Skip” Powers is a distinguished author, lecturer, and Senior Advisor who has spent over three decades in the federal government. His extensive knowledge covers vital domains such as emergency management, organizational development, human capital leadership, continuity planning, resiliency, cybersecurity, and grants management. Contact Dr. Powers at [email protected]

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