Two new surveys show that teams forced into remote work during the pandemic are split on whether they want to continue working remotely going forward. However, in those same surveys, many business leaders responsible for the bottom line are planning to make remote work permanent.

Whereby, a company that provides video collaboration, surveyed 1,500 British professionals who began working from home following stay-at-home orders. Only 13 percent said they want to work entirely remotely going forward. Many more (51 percent) said they'd want some flexibility, but they weren't eager to go all-remote all the time.

A second survey of 410 senior and midlevel American businesspeople conducted by the process automation company Pipefy showed similar ambivalence toward remote work. Only 20 percent of newly remote workers said they'd like to work remotely full time. Forty-one percent said they'd prefer to head back to the office, and 39 percent said they'd like flexibility.

Both surveys show only a small majority (64 percent and 59 percent) want to retain a work from home option. And yet it looks like employees will get that remote work flexibility whether they want it or not. 

According to the Whereby survey, 82 percent of decision-makers said they're planning more remote work going forward. Sixty-five percent want to downsize their office space.

Why the gap between employee preference and business intent? The Whereby survey provides these clues.

  • 54 percent of newly remote employees report working more hours than before. 
  • 53 percent of decision-makers feel that going remote has increased overall productivity.

Can you think of another change you might make as a business that would increase productivity across 50 percent or more of your workforce, dramatically decrease costs (for office space, parking, snacks--so many expenses), and possibly make some employees happier with their jobs? 

Wait. Happier? If you embraced remote work pre-pandemic, you won't be surprised by the productivity increases or the cost savings, but you may question that "happier" claim. Even in the best of times, transitioning to smooth remote work takes a while.  

These are not the best of times, and yet the Whereby study found that 53 percent of employees feel their well-being improved because of working from home. Given the context (you know--global pandemic, economic collapse, stuck at home all the time), only a paltry 18 percent feel their mental well-being worsened. 

Why would well-being improve? The Pipefy survey dug into this and found that newly remote workers were most satisfied with family time (83 percent) but most dissatisfied with their mental health (41 percent) and work-life balance (39 percent). This suggests that well-being improvements for new remote workers may be due to non-work factors (like seeing their kids), making them happier despite the extra work hours.

These surveys raise some red flags. While it's clear that remote work is proving more successful than you might have imagined, the way you're operating must change to avoid burnout. 

If you lead a recently remote team and think you might go all in, keep these tips in mind.

1. Fix how you measure productivity.

Cheeks in seats has long been the lazy leader's proxy for productivity. It's a terrible measure at any time because no one is in business to sell warm chairs to customers.

It's even dumber right now. Many remote workers are still under government-mandated stay-at-home orders. The fact that they stay at home and work (because there's nothing else they can do) is not a victory for productivity. That's a byproduct of captivity. 

The Pipefy survey found that 32 percent of newly remote workers feel they're burning out, just months into the lockdown.

Successful remote teams measure results, not activity and not time online. 

2. Fill your remote work practice gaps.  

Pre-pandemic, remote work experts advised teams to make the transition after setting up clear agreements, policies, and the necessary collaboration infrastructure. Teams forced to go remote are making do without any of these foundations. 

According to the Pipefy study: 

  • 54 percent of respondents lack basic collaboration technology
  • 64 percent have no remote work policies
  • Only 41 percent say they have clarity on their priorities and responsibilities

The productivity numbers speak to ingenuity in crisis and creative problem solving when pushed to make do. But just because you can make do, that doesn't mean you've found a scalable, sustainable, or professional way to move forward. 

If you want to make remote work a permanent part of your business, start by meeting with your team to understand what is and is not working, and then fill the gaps.