The pros and cons of remote work

As employers begin to call employees back to the office, a Wharton professor’s new book offers a look at some of the pros and cons of remote work, as well as how employees can navigate a return to the office.

picture of author and book cover
Wharton professor and author, Peter Cappelli, of “The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work, and the Hard Choices We All Face.” (Image: Wharton School Press)

In his new book, “The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work, and the Hard Choices We All Face,” published by Wharton School Press, Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School, unveils the tradeoffs employers and employees may have to accept in a changing work world transformed by the pandemic.

Cappelli, who is also the director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, acknowledges that work-life balance can be “elusive.” He writes that increased flexibility and cost reductions seem to be remote work’s primary successes.

“With extended periods of remote work, employees spend less time and money commuting,” he says. “Permanent remote work would allow employees to relocate to more affordable or convenient areas. Another bonus is heightened autonomy for employees.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced an unprecedented experiment that turned remote work into a kind of “new normal.” Now comes the hard part, says Cappelli.

“Having so many office workers getting work done from home, and many preferring it, what should we do?” he asks. “Should we keep them at home? Should we let people choose? What if they want to stay home permanently? How do we decide?”

In a call to action for both employers and employees, Cappelli implores that everyone must soon make a choice. Unlike previous predictions about the future of work, this one is constantly evolving—and it has the potential to reshape one of the most fundamental aspects of life.
Many employees want to continue that normal and continue to work remotely, and most at least want the ability to work occasionally from home.

“The question is: Do they know what they are getting into?” Cappelli says. “It won’t be like the pandemic when everyone was working from home. Will you be the odd one out if your peers go back? What we know from research on telework is that the answer is likely yes.”

But for employers, the benefits of employees working from home or hybrid approaches are not so obvious.

“Permanent remote work has a straightforward effect on costs: We will get rid of your office, saving real estate costs, and all the support, like free food, that we used to provide,” Cappelli says. “Occasional work-from-home doesn’t have nearly so obvious a benefit. Yes, most employees want the option to work from home, but they want other things even more, like a pay raise. Is this one worth it?”

In the book, Cappelli lays out the facts in an effort to allow everyone involved to envision their futures. He unveils the surprising tradeoffs both employers and employees may have to accept to get what they want.

“What works for employers isn’t necessarily going to work for employees,” says Cappelli.

“The Future of the Office” illustrates the challenges many face in drawing lessons from the pandemic and deciding what to do moving forward.

Cappelli addresses allowing some workers to be permanently remote, letting others choose when to work from home, and getting rid of offices.

“What the legal challenges are associated with having two groups of employees in the same jobs and treating them differently is a concern employers need to address,” he says.

Cappelli’s research reveals there is no consensus among business leaders. Even the most high-profile and forward-thinking companies are taking divergent approaches.

“The fact that there is an East Coast (come back to the office) West Coast (work from home is fine) divide is best explained by the type of industries that are dominant in each location,” he says.

Cappelli offers some guidance as to what to expect when some people will be in the office and others work at home, and also what happened when employers try to take back offices.

“In particular, the idea of ‘hoteling’ and sharing offices, which was popular in the era, faded pretty quickly because employees really didn’t like it,” he says.

Cappelli foresees the likely implementation of “hybrid” models: a mix of on-site and remote work. He also suggests that leaders create a clear plan for their employees’ return to soften a potentially difficult transition.

“Companies need to remain flexible to see what works and what doesn’t — and be ready to adapt,” he says.

Employers should be prepared to have conversations with employees about everything: What do you miss about the office? How was the company financially impacted by COVID-19? How comfortable are you with returning to the office? Transparency will help build trust and “humanize” the workplace, he writes.

Cappelli notes that social relationships are “the single most important factor” keeping workers at an organization.

“Elements like a lack of genuine eye contact during video conferencing has a negative impact on workers,” he says. “What used to be a subtle social interaction has become a significant obstacle to workplace trust and resilience.”