Is remote work going away?

| 31 minutes | Media Contact: University Communications


As more companies demand that employees return to the office, is the work from home era ending? 


In this episode of The Search Bar, host Adam Sparkes interviews Misty Bennett, Associate Dean of the College of Business Administration at Central Michigan University, about the state of remote work. Misty discusses the shift in work dynamics during the pandemic and the challenges and benefits of remote work. She emphasizes the importance of meeting employees' needs and the value of flexibility and work-life balance. Misty also highlights the war for talent and the need for companies to adapt to attract and retain top talent. She suggests that a hybrid workplace model, with a mix of in-person and remote work, is likely to be the future of work. Misty also mentions the potential impact of AI on the workforce and the importance of developing skills that complement AI capabilities. Overall, she believes that the future of work will involve continuous evolution and a variety of work models to accommodate diverse needs and preferences. 




Misty: But I think that what you're going to find is — and that's where we are now, really — there's a war for talent. If you want to get top talent, you need to be able to recruit people. And that means meeting their needs. And people have realized the value of having some personal time, having some flexibility to meet needs. We're also realizing the value of having diverse individuals at work. And that means that not everyone's lifestyles are built in such a way that I can go work from eight to five Monday through Friday.

Adam: As more companies demand that employees return to the office, is the work from home era coming to an end? Welcome to The Search Bar. You've got questions. Let's find some answers. I'm your host, Adam Sparkes, and today we're chatting with Misty Bennett, associate Dean of the College of Business and Administration at Central Michigan University. Welcome, Misty. I'm excited to have you here, in person, so we can talk about being remote. We are both living in a world right now where we probably couldn't have done this two and a half years ago because we all were living through a pandemic, and we probably weren't vaccinated two and a half, three years ago. Everyone who had a job that was able to be remote at that time was probably remote for at least a few months. The result of that has been that the way that we work has changed pretty dramatically, or maybe not as dramatically as we first thought it would. And I'm just curious what your take is on the state of remote work right now. How do you see it currently as we sit? What does the world look like for those of us who may or may not commute with a webcam?

What factors inform a company's decision to work remotely or in person post-pandemic?

Misty: Yeah, so it's interesting. We all, I think, got more experience working remotely than we thought we would have. And I think at the start of the pandemic, there was a great disruption, but then the idea that this would be a very short-lived thing, and we're going to go back to normal, and all's going to be — it’s all going to be the same, so this is just a temporary thing. And then, we saw companies like Google saying, “Well, we're going to bring folks back.” “Oh wait, no, we're not.” It's going to get delayed another three months, and another six months. And so, at each of those points was this lingering question for employees, I think, for those who are able — and I think it's important that we reference that, right? There are still jobs, and my husband's one of 'em, he's an optometrist. He has to see your eyeballs in person to be able to do his job. So not all jobs can be done remotely, but I think that we certainly broadened and tested that a bit, and expanded to have more jobs being done remote than we ever thought we would, and for longer than we ever thought we would. And so, now, companies are in this place, and I think workers are in this place, of [asking], “Is this the new normal and are we always going to be able to be remote?” And I think the really important thing for companies is what's the cost of that? And so obviously there are physical costs, there's resources that you have to designate to remote workers. There are resource savings by not having expensive offices in urban locations. There are also, however, there are people costs involved. And so, one of the things that I've noticed recently working with companies is I ask — they'll ask me to come in and say, “Can you talk to our employees about engagement, and get them engaged, and get them to come back to work?” Because we want them back. And sometimes that conversation evolves, and I'll ask more probing questions and well, “What are your employees' reasons for wanting to stay home?” And so, sometimes there are some very serious — maybe there's caregiving reasons involved. Maybe there's a personal health reason involved. For instance, an individual with fibromyalgia might be better served working from home; it might be more productive. But I think the challenge is making sure that those people still feel engaged, still feel like they're committed to the company, a part of the team. From the company's perspective, I think there's a concern that we're kind of losing that culture that we had when we were all together.

What is the impact of remote work on efficiency and productivity?

Adam: There's so much things that can be unpacked. I want to start with efficiency. I'll put my personal bias on it. I think in most places where efficiency isn't very easily measured by metrics, if your job isn't outputting numbers — a call center [for example] is a place to easily measure efficiency. But a lot of us, if we work in creative and business endeavors or project management endeavors, managing our efficiency or monitoring our efficiency is a very difficult task. And it seems like that is probably a compounded challenge for remote work. What's your take on that?

Misty: Yeah, so many things, so directions I can go in with that. One of the pieces that has happened as a result of the pandemic is some companies — and this is just partly a management style, so — some companies are very top down and don't necessarily trust their workers. And so, we're going to monitor your productivity. So, insert webcams and keyboard trackers and all of the things. So, people were doing some creative, we'll say, tricks and workarounds, to having a cat walk across a keyboard while they're taking a break to go do something. Or people cheat all the time with the health trackers, with putting their Fitbit on the dog to get the steps and the points. So, people are really good at working around systems.

Adam: Oh, for sure.

Misty: And it never feels good from the employee perspective to be watched and to be distrusted, essentially. You're essentially saying, “We don't trust that you're doing your job at home, so we're going to watch you closely.” What we've learned and what we've known from organizational behavior literature — we've been doing studies since the eighties on telework — and telework, interestingly, really started telecommuting as a government initiative to save money. And what we found, the manager's assumption always is that, “Well, I'm not going to trust them.” You're wearing a Meowster Chief pin, and we were having this conversation earlier, so I have to bring it up, but you're going to be sitting at home playing Halo instead of working. 

Adam: I will. 

Misty: So, how are we going to trust you? Right? We've got to watch, we've got to monitor. So, that's the question. But when they started to study, “Well, are you really playing Halo or are you actually getting your work done?” productivity was skyrocketing. People were more productive at home, they were more efficient at home, they were reporting that they had more time or work-life balance, all of the things. So, I think it really, kind of, changed the expectations that we weren't seeing what managers were fearing, that people really were, for the most part, more productive.

How does remote work impact employee recruitment and retention?

Adam: There seems like there's this — not that anyone here has done this to me in a way that's tangible — it feels like when it comes to workplace productivity, or the way we're going to shift the way we work, the tendency is to qualify whether something's going to be affective by how it's worked in the past. That's the only thing you really know. So, if you're somebody who did remote work during the pandemic and you're being asked to come in, it might feel kind of regressive at this point. But also, I mean, I think it's tough for these — and I don't think it's any one individual but — kind of management — I'm saying that as kind of a monolith — to not just go, “Well, we felt more comfortable doing this other thing that we did for 30 years.” I think it is sort of a natural reaction, but I would postulate, and I'm betting you'll agree, at least with me to some degree on this, that the cat's out of the bag. 

Misty: 100%.

Adam: I don't think that white collar workers are going to go back to anything that looked like pre-pandemic anytime soon.

Misty: Right. And also, because they have the power right now, just in numbers. So, there's a war for talent, especially in certain areas, so people can dictate their terms of: if I want to work from home and I'm a skilled worker with a unique skillset, I get to do that. So, I think companies are having a little bit of a rude awakening in that they thought we'd be able to say, "Hey, you guys come back now, it's time. Pandemic's over, it's time to come back, everybody." And people said, "No, we're good.” We realized all of these benefits. And I think that people are really starting to redefine what work looks like. And when we talk about work-life balance, and having boundaries between work and home, I think that — I mean, it looks different for every individual — but I think that in general, people are evolving on this journey that, it has changed. And so, dictating the terms and saying, "You're coming back," it's not going to work. And I've seen it really fail and companies will lose some of their top talent because of it. I think if they want to do it, then companies — and there certainly benefits to doing it, right? There are a lot of benefits. We do still have better collaboration when we're in person. We do see stronger commitment and loyalty when we're in person. But companies have to make that case again. And so, they have to convince people this is why it's better for you to come back, because you can be a part of these things, this team, this initiative. And so, I think that's the journey that companies are on right now, is figuring out how to do that and how to get that message across.

What are the challenges and benefits of remote work?

Adam: Probably the thesis, if we were giving a course packet out to students right now — it’s where we work, we talk about it in those terms — the beginning of this lecture would be: we're probably going to a hybrid workplace, largely. Again, I'm talking about white collar work. The flexible schedule — not you're only working three days, but you're not working in the office like Monday and Friday.

Misty: Right. And I think that the challenge is always, if I'm a part of a team and my days are Monday, Wednesday, Friday and your days are Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, then we're not going to have that opportunity for collaboration. And so, that's when companies have to be really intentional about how they're doing this. And so, I have seen some companies say it's 40% of your week is in person and we're all here Monday, Tuesday. Those are the collaboration days. So I think if you have teams where in-person collaboration is still important, then absolutely you need to have those conversations. But I think that they're recognizing that, again, white collar types of jobs, there's this great latitude of how things are going to get accomplished. And at the end of the day, if someone is accomplishing their work, they're productive, meeting all the targets, and they feel like they have better work-life balance, then that's a win.

Adam: There could be also that there's a cost benefit to these, at least part-time, remote positions. People seem to prefer them. When you do this — and even before the pandemic — I think when you polled the workforce, they're like, “Yeah, baby, I want to work three days a week or four days a week in the office.” Again, not talking about going — four-day work week, different podcast. People seem to prefer that. And in terms of turnover and having that flexibility, that's what makes a job attractive. It's expensive to hire new people. I think you hear that when you work in a place, or if you participate in hiring people or hire people directly. If you talk to the folks that do the research on it, it's true. It's quite expensive to replace somebody, versus keeping them on for the longest duration that they can be productive for the company.

Misty: Right, yeah. We say it takes six months to a year to recoup your loss, essentially, on hiring someone before they start to make anything for the company.

Adam: And you find that to be true, kind of, across the board?

Misty: It is. I think what — and some companies did this, some companies were really smart and downsized their physical locations, so they were selling buildings throughout the pandemic. Those companies that did that saved money. I think other companies have tried various things. They've tried hoteling. I've seen that work fairly well, where you're not going to have a physical office that's quote yours, you're going to share this workspace. And so, that's another good way to conserve space. I think what's not working well is companies who basically kept their existing locations in their offices, and it's kind of a ghost town. I think not only there's the physical resources waste to that, but there's also the feeling to that of if you're that one employee who’s in on a Thursday and there are only two other people in, you don't have — what probably drew you to be there on a Thursday is to get some of the social connection, and you're not having the opportunity to do that.

How can companies adapt to the changing work landscape?

Adam: So, would you lean towards advising companies to do that more structured approach that we were talking about where it's like if you're out three days or if you're out two days, these are the two or three days that we are in so that we are all here for a purpose, right? 

Misty: Right.

Adam: This is when the big meetings going down, this is when that brainstorm is going down. This is when you're meeting with your supervisor.

Misty: I think the ideal solution is, if you can have a smaller physical location than what you were at pre-pandemic, you can have really cool hoteling. I've seen hoteling done well where you can even have photo frames that [when] I come in for my day, I stick my flash drive in, and it's got personalized pictures, and then you come in the next. So, you can personalize things even to some degree. But that we are strategic about which teams are in. So Monday, Wednesday teams A through F are in, and then G through M are in on Tuesday, Thursday, and that's most efficient use of resources, that's making sure that the right teams are in together to have those conversations. It requires a high degree of coordination, but I think that companies who are doing this well are doing some of those strategies.

Adam: And they're probably advertising that they're doing that too. One of the things I've noticed, as I'm desperately trying to stop working with Aaron and Kyle… One of the things I've noticed as my interns graduate, and I'm looking at job opportunities with them, is that the schedule and what days are remote and things, they're on the job listings. And my suspicion, and I think you could probably answer this pretty well, is that, particularly young people who are starting to enter the workforce right now, because of the way high school and or college has changed because of the pandemic and because of the way it has remained since then, they're used to living their lives and getting things done partially in-person and a little bit on their own time and online. And I think that — translating that type of a schedule to their professional, their first professional experience, is attractive to them.

What should employees consider before accepting a remote position?

Misty: Yeah, absolutely. And so, here's the challenge. So, the challenge for — I talked to students about this all the time. Remote work is really attractive, I think. So, when you are looking at those job postings and they have that remote availability, that sounds great. Who doesn't want to work in their pajamas every day? That sounds awesome. And some of us did that. I may have had a week or two where it was yoga pants all week.

Adam: Oh dude, pajama pants all the way.

Misty: During the pandemic. Totally. It was great, but not for all of us. And so, there are certain — and I'm one of them, I'm naturally a little bit introverted, so that might be my tendency, but I might need to be a part of my team to help push myself out of that sometimes. So, I need to work on my extroversion, I need to work on my teamwork skills. The more that I hunker down and my little bunker and all of the comfy things, I'm going to step away from those things that might be that next step towards my career. And then there's one even more serious implication that I talk to students with mental health issues, and I think it's not a great option always if you have underlying depression, if you struggle with anxiety. Being isolated is oftentimes not helpful for those conditions. And so, I caution people to talk to your therapist about those kinds of things before you make those decisions, because your day-to-day, your work life, is a huge part of your identity, a huge part of who you are, and can very much impact your mental health as well.

Adam: Yeah, I think that's really good to think about. Anecdotally, I, again, was a small business owner before I worked in higher ed. And by small business, I mean me and one employee, so a very, very small business, and I worked from home a lot. I had an office, but I worked from home a lot. And I know that about midway through that journey for me, before I left for where I'm at now, I realized that days that I worked in my pajamas started to feel like they lasted forever or maybe they were only five minutes long. I had to cognitively make the decision to, when I get up, I'm going to get dressed, and I'm going to get dressed for work even if I work from home. Because it is really easy to just fall into this almost twilight state of work if you don't keep a really rigid schedule for yourself, not necessarily because the company's putting it on you. You might just feel like you're never getting a break, even though you thought you're going to feel like you had a break all the time. Does that make sense?

Misty: And that impacts your stress and wellbeing. And we saw that happen to lots of people in the pandemic. One of the things that was a really interesting study that came out of the pandemic is having people not just get dressed, but actually get in your car and drive around a block or two and then park back at your house, go back in and start your workday. And then do the same thing at the end of your workday; get back in your car, drive a couple of blocks. And they found that really it did a little bit of cognitive resetting, like a switch. And so, we are creatures of habit, and we have our routines, and our routines trigger certain chemicals in our brain that kind of signal, “Hey, pay attention time, it's alert time, we're going to be awake, we're going to be productive.” When you're in your pajamas, those chemicals are not kicked in. So, they did suggest that you're going to have to really work harder at setting boundaries. And I think that boundaries are really, really important now more than ever because of the ability that we have to essentially work from wherever, whenever. I catch myself often at my son's basketball game and I'll be checking work emails, and there's just this continual blur of there's no separation between your home life and your work life anymore. And that can take a toll on mental health over time.

What is the importance of work-life balance and setting boundaries in a remote environment?

Adam: I think it was during the first year of the pandemic — I have a friend who is a content creator and largely works from home and her husband is a doctor. I'm pretty sure this was her I had this conversation with. Caroline, if you're listening, I'm sorry if I'm misattributing this to you. I think she had mentioned something about, like, as wild as what he was going through was, there was a reset when you drive to and from the hospital where you're like, “Work, not.” But when you're kind of sitting in the doldrum of something that's obviously even much less stressful than that, you just feel like you're at work all the time. It just feels like you're at work all the time. And I know I've heard other people talk about making you sure you have a home office, even if it's just buying a changing screen and putting [it] around a card table in your kitchen. If you don't have a lot of space, you should still have a place that you work and a place that you live. Even if the place that you work is as big as this table that we're at, don't do anything else at that table. Leave your work there, leave the laptop there, and that's where you get it done. So even if it's the middle of the night and you're like, I have to go do X, get up, go turn the light on and go do it at that space.

Misty: Yeah, same thing that they tell us about sleep hygiene, right? It's, your bed should only be — no devices in bed, never bring in devices.

Adam: I'm so bad at that.

Misty: So, here's a great — I'm glad you just said that.

Adam: I am. I'm really bad at it.

Misty: Here's a fun exercise. If you ever want to test your separation of your home and work-life boundaries, delete your email app from your phone.

Adam: (Gasp).

Misty: Yes, it's wild. I did this during the pandemic. I'm so sad to say that I've put it back since, but it was really, really eye-opening, because if you have to sit at your computer to do emails, it completely changes the way that you email, it’s sometimes the way that you respond, the tone and how we're really fast to respond to things that sometimes maybe we shouldn’t be. Maybe we should sit and think on a bit when it's on our phone. But you'll also — it's just truly shocking that first week or two how often you go to touch. I would touch it and I'd be like, it's not here. What happened? And then, oh yeah, I forgot, I deleted that.

Adam: I believe in that advice that you gave. I believe in that so much. I do not know that I could do it.

Misty: It's a great — actually, even if you just do it for a day just to test yourself and see how many times do you try to multitask? Because multitasking, we found, is not productive. We are actually less productive, we waste efficiency, and we make more mistakes, and it's bad for our brain, all of the things. So...

Adam: Yeah, I live off of adult ADD, so I really do, I believe everything you're saying. My best days are when I write a list, and if I write the list, I'm much more efficient if I just only get the list done in the order in which I wrote it. Unless someone comes in and is like, "Hey, do this now." This is probably the case too. I feel like I'm a recovering workaholic, and I have been for a decade, maybe less than that, maybe six years, seven years. I hear that stuff, and like I said, I want to embody that sort of an idea. And then I'm like, but I won't (hehehe). I'm never going to delete Outlook from my phone. So, you said you have your Outlook back on your phone. Do you guys have Outlook on your phone?

Kyle: I have Outlook, but I don't have Teams notifications on.

Adam: Oh, that's a good one.

Misty: Well, and, step one. So, if you’re in recovery and there's steps, and so if step one is just as simple as I turn off my notifications, that's a good thing.

Adam: I do do that one actually. I do. Yeah.

Misty: So, you're already in the phases. But we are in America, we are workaholics, and we very much have a strong Monday-through-Friday, eight-to-five culture. And then you're also 24/7 responding. And technology made that possible, but it’s made it challenging.

Adam: I think socially we've — and part of it's the pandemic — I think part of it, there's a renewed interest in labor right now in the country. There's all sorts of, just, weird, kind of, paradigm shifts that are happening where it does feel like there's a little bit less of a slow clap for you working yourself to death. I joke with my employees and my interns about this all the time that I've been there. I can remember hitting a wall before I shut down that business of mine and went into my higher ed… I joke that all the time: higher ed, for me, soft retirement. At least it feels like it because I was working so much. And one of the reasons that you work so much is that there's all of these people around you going (slow clapping) … They see what you're doing, and they go, “Good job.” Doesn't matter if it's even to the level that it's destructive. Folks are kind of like, “Yeah, working hard is the number one virtue.” “It makes you an ethical and good person,” and they just clap you all the way until you crack.

Misty: Yes, but can I give you a "yes, but?"

Adam: 100% you can give me a "yes, but."

Misty: So, I had a colleague that I worked with once upon a time who was there before everyone, there after everyone, and that was very much, he was going to advance his career by doing that. I had an office near him and would hear him talking to the car dealers on the phone, and talking to his wife, and doing clearly non-work activities while he was physically at the office. Long story short, his magical story that he had that was going to work out didn't work out for him. And I'm a big believer in work smarter, not harder. And so, if you can get in and get your work done, it's not about physically being there. And I think, to this remote work, it's about being strategically there at the right times with the right people — putting yourself there when somebody's there to know that you're there to have that conversation. You're there to have access to a mentorship opportunity. You're there to have these crucial moments, but it doesn't have to be all consuming. And I think that we're also — there was a cost to the pandemic that everyone paid, and I think we're still calculating that cost. 

Adam: Yeah, I think so too. 

Misty: And I think that it impacted everyone's mental health. And so, we now are having to be smart about prioritizing our personal lives. And if you don't make yourself a priority, then you're going to pay the effects. And I think that some of us have paid that and have felt that. And so, now we understand a little bit more the value of, “I need to make time for me,” and understanding what that might look like. So, I'm starting to see that "attaboy" culture a little bit pushed back of, you really need to be here for this. "Hey, can you maybe work remotely on Friday? I noticed we didn't have any meetings." And I think the more that we as a culture shape that, that's going to hopefully get us to a more balanced work.

What is the value of personal time and flexibility in meeting employees' needs?

Adam: And you can absolutely do that while still raising expectations and adjusting goals. I mean, I feel like we do that here all the time. I know the team that I work with is doing a lot more this year, and we'll do a lot more next year than we did three years ago. And it's not because everyone's working 70 hours a week, at all. There's a lot of check-ins. I know I check in on my team. I know that my director will physically ask me, "taking care of yourself? Taking any time?" She'll be on my case about that because she doesn't want me to fall into that kind of proclivity that I used to have where it's like, “You can fix this with extra hours.” You can't fix everything with extra hours, like you said. And that perception was probably a little dangerous, even for that old colleague that you had where it's like, I mean, you're kind of just existing here to impress people now. I mean, “I'll just take care of it from here in case you guys need me,” is probably what he was hoping that would look like. Right?

Misty: Right. Well, and I think the thing too is that people assume — we make all these assumptions. So, I assume that why I choose to work the way that I am, or why I might come in early, or why I might stay late, or why I might not be here at all on a Friday. But probably, we never had that conversation and I never explicitly said. And so, I think employees need to be aware that you need to explicitly state what are your reasons for wanting to be remote. I got great advice and mentorship once when I was asking a female president of a university, actually, how she navigates her personal life with all of her duties. And I was speaking specifically to caregiving, having children myself. There are times when I felt like I can't bring up children into this conversation because I don't want to be labeled as that person who has those other duties who's not going to be fully committed to work. The advice was great. And she said, "You frame it all in terms of what you need to be your most successful self, your most productive self." And I think that we can all relate to that, that you've had those days where you've pushed through something hard, you come to work exhausted. You're just kind of checking the boxes that day. You go home and you were a zombie and you didn't contribute a lot. You weren't your best self. And then you've had those days coming off of a vacation or coming off of a personal day, or you took time to do X, Y, or Z that you really wanted to, and then you came in fresh and you had a much more productive day. You contributed novel ideas. And so, it's about making that case for — and it's very individual, right? Because we all have different caregiving responsibilities, different personal identities, conditions and things that might change the way that we work. But asking yourself, what does that look like for me in terms of doing my best work? And then have that conversation with your employer.

What does the future work landscape look like?

Adam: With all this stuff being considered, if you had to hazard a guess, what are we looking at in the next 10 years? If you could be soothsayer for us a little bit in the professional space, what are our schedules going to look like? How are we going to be working? What are those big changes that are coming?

Misty: Sure. Well, I think that one of the potential big disruptors that's coming our way is AI, and we haven't talked about that yet, but that's kind of this unknown. And when AI was first evolving, at first the assumption was, well, it's going to take all of the entry-level jobs. I don't think that's going to be the case anywhere. We're starting to find out it's going to take some lawyers' jobs, and it's going to take some accountants’, and it's going to do some things that are at a higher-level skillset. And so, we're also going to have people using those tools more, which can be done flexibly and remotely. So, I think that, as workers, we're moving towards adapting our competencies and our skills in terms of being able to solve problems, being able to communicate and collaborate, and do very people-oriented types of skills that AI is not going to be able to do as well. And so, when I think about that five-day-a-week, kind of, traditional notion, is that going to be totally gone? I think for most companies, it is. I think that you'll have, because of really strong, longstanding cultures, there will be certain companies and certain industries that might be harder to let go of that. But I think that what you're going to find is — and that's where we are now, really — there's a war for talent. It's a very competitive market space right now. And so, if you want to get top talent, you need to be able to recruit people, and that means meeting their needs. And people have realized the value of having some personal time, having some flexibility to meet needs. We're also realizing the value of having diverse individuals at work. And that means that not everyone's lifestyles are built in such a way that I can go work from eight to five, Monday through Friday. I might have caregiving needs that impact me. And so, the more that we're able to be flexible and adaptable around that, we'll have a more diverse workforce, we'll be able to bring more talent into our organizations. So, the more that companies lean into this, I think ultimately the more successful that they're going to be. But I think it's going to be a continual evolution, and I don't think we're going to settle. I don't think we'll find one new — we've got the 3, 2, 2 or the four. Or alternating Fridays is going to be the most popular. I think you're going to see a lot of different models out there, which means that there's a lot of choice for employers and if you're on the job market that you have a lot of options. So, asking those questions about those practices is really important when you're on that job interview.

Adam: Awesome. Well, I look forward to seeing you again in person.

Misty: Great.

Adam: Awesome. Misty, thank you for coming in. Thanks for telling me about remote work.

Misty: Thanks. Appreciate it.

Adam: Thanks for stopping by The Search Bar. Make sure that you like and subscribe so that you never have to search for another episode.

The views and opinions expressed in these episodes are strictly those of the host and guest speaker.