Remote work trends in 2019

When remote work is trendier than ever, it’s important to read between the lines.

Robert Gibb
Sep 6, 2019 · 6 min read

I don’t follow remote work trends much except for the posts I see on my LinkedIn feed, so I decided to spend a few hours browsing the web for articles published this year about remote work. What I found was what I expected: authors praising remote work, often dramatically, and saying remote work is the absolute best.

While I admired the enthusiasm I decided to dig a little deeper into their all-or-nothing thinking. Sometimes their claims were justified (trend #2), but most of the times they weren’t (trend #1, #3, and #4). Some of you might take this as me being anti-remote work, and that’s fine. But consider two things: I am a happy full time remote worker and I help people find full time remote jobs.

What I’m trying to do here is help us have healthier conversations about remote work and make remote work healthier as well. (Let’s use those productivity gains for extra time off!)

With that said, here are the trends…

A video version of this article, if you want to watch instead of read.

Trend #1: Using dramatized remote work growth statistics

Those who have a stake in the remote work environment are tempted to use outlandish statistics about remote work to pseudo-support their cause. As the creator of the remote job course I’m often tempted myself. But I take a step back and ask: for what? If a cause is worth growing it’s worth growing with grace and truth.

I bring this up because, during my research into remote work trends, I came across many articles like this HR Technologist article that said 50% of the entire workforce will soon be remote. The source of the study cited was this Forbes article which only mentions the 50% number in the title and nowhere in the actual article. (This is not surprising to me though. Many Forbes articles are based on the author’s dreams of their own utopia.)

So, how fast is remote work really growing? Here are some legitimate studies I found cited in recently-published articles about remote work trends:

  • A 2016 Gallup poll found that 43% of employed Americans spent at least some time working remotely, up from 39% in 2012. “Some time” is the key phrase here.
  • 2017 US Census data shows that 5.2% of U.S. workers are based entirely at home.
Graph based on 2017 US Census data published in this Quartz article.

For me the key takeaway about the falsification of remote work growth is this: If we say remote work is growing faster than it is, job applicants will flood the remote job market and be left discouraged when they don’t find a remote job in a reasonable timeframe.

However, it’s encouraging that the amount of time that people work occasionally from home is rising. This means existing office employees can start by asking to work remotely some days. Then, once they prove themselves, they can ask to work remotely at will or full time. (Yes, this is possible. I have done it twice at two different companies where I started in the office.)

Trend #2: Showing that remote work makes workers more productive

During my hours of research into remote work trends I didn’t come across one article or study that spoke against the productivity gains of remote work in 2019. Findings were either neutral or in favor of remote work, with most being the latter.

The most impressive, unbiased, and recent study I found was a 2–year remote work study by Harvard that was published in 2019 and got pickup in some notable publications like the World Economic Forum.

The study found that employees who were able to work from anywhere (WFA) for the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) were 4.4% more productive than employees who could only work from home (WFH) within a 50-mile radius of the office. Four-point-four percent might not seem like a lot, but when you consider the size of the USPTO these productivity gains create a lot of value for the US economy.

One thing this study alludes to is how the US government was already exercising flexible work policies (i.e. WFH) before the study was conducted. In other words, an entity that is pressured by citizens to make economically sound decisions has been implementing flexible work policies for quite some time.

This is reassuring as aspiring remote workers currently stuck in offices can pass case studies like this on to their managers when making a case for remote work.

Trend #3: Saying remote work is for everyone

Of course, there are trendy publications that take advantage of carefully conducted studies with bogus click-bait articles. One such example is this Inc article that piggybacks on the Harvard study. The title of the article reads: New Harvard Research Says It’s Time to Let Employees Work From Anywhere.

Many other articles I came across do this type of piggybacking, too. But the thing is, the research doesn’t say that it’s beneficial for employees in general to work from anywhere. In fact, in this article written by the Harvard researchers, they say that a WFA policy may not work for companies with employees that need to frequently coordinate with other employees.

“Consider the type of work itself [before trying a work from anywhere policy]. We found that if a job is very independent — that is, the employee can carry out most job duties with little or no coordination with co-workers (as can a patent examiner) — the transition to WFA is more likely to result in productivity increases.”

Writing misleading headlines and spreading dramatized news may encourage leaders at collaborative companies to try remote work and, when it doesn’t work, cause them to bash remote work (an example of this). This, in turn, may discourage leaders at companies with less collaborative cultures to give remote work a try.

Trend #4: Using productivity gains to work more

There’s a 2014 Stanford study that’s still frequently cited in trendy publications to this day that looked at what happened when a Chinese travel agency let call center employees work from home. The study found that productivity increased by an average of 13%.

What’s not mentioned in the stories I came across is that, when the experiment ended, employees could choose whether to continue teleworking or return to the office. Half returned to the office. And it’s easy to see why: In a TEDx presentation given by the head researcher, the work environments of some of the WFH employees are shown. One woman’s tiny desk is at the foot of her bed. So basically she’s spending 16+ hours in her bedroom.

In effect, remote employees were working (in isolation) more than their in-office colleagues. And they were not rewarded for this time saved, or given this time back. For instance, after achieving the same productivity of in-office workers, they were directed to keep working — not, say, take a half day on Friday.

Here are some articles I came across that support this idea of working more while working remotely:

I’ve also seen many examples of the remote work grind mentality on LinkedIn this year. This LinkedIn post is just one example:

If this works for you as a remote worker I respect that. But I’ve done this myself and it led me to having a massive breakdown. In the end, this wasn’t a bad thing as it inspired a spiritual awakening of sorts, but ask yourself: Am I ready for the burnout and what burnout may bring?

In short, know thyself before adopting or falling victim to the remote work grind. Also, I encourage you to get outside and play a little (especially during the work day!) and, lastly, take trends with a grain of salt.

If you’re interested in getting a full time remote job, sign up for my free course that shows you the approach I used to land three full time remote jobs in my career. 😎💻

The Remote Job Course

I created the remote job course after landing three full time remote jobs in my career. Sign up for the course here: https://remotejobcourse.com

Robert Gibb

Written by

I love you, and your words. igotpassion.net ❤️

The Remote Job Course

I created the remote job course after landing three full time remote jobs in my career. Sign up for the course here: https://remotejobcourse.com

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