How remote work is quietly remaking our lives

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From their ersatz offices in coffee shops, coworking spaces, and living rooms, a growing number of remote workers are quietly remaking the way we work and live.

Take Eden Rehmet, who was able to parlay her wages working in trade services at a New York City commodities broker into buying a home and opening a small business upstate.

Rob Osoria, a web developer, works remotely from Brooklyn half of the week to skip a commute to his Manhattan office.

And interior designer Meg Lavalette gets the best of both worlds by living and doing the majority of her work in rural upstate New York, while traveling to New York City every other week to meet with clients.

All of them told Recode that apart from a few downsides, they have improved the quality of their lives by working remotely and releasing their tether to specific places near their employers. While remote work has blurred some of the boundaries between their work lives and their personal lives, they say they’re happier and often more productive than they’d been at traditional offices.

Depending on how you measure it, remote employees like these make up anywhere from 5.3 percent (those who typically work from home) to nearly two-thirds (who work remotely ever) of the US workforce, a number that has been rising since the advent of a reliable and robust home broadband connection earlier this decade.

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The changes remote work has introduced have happened so gradually you may not have noticed. But its growing popularity is remaking how we work, the tools we use to work, how we communicate at work, and even the hours we work. It’s also connected to population shifts from big cities to less populated areas, and it’s upending sectors of commercial real estate, both in terms of how spaces are designed and where they’re located.

What was once a rarity among a select set of workers is quickly becoming a defining feature of the future of work.

The ups and downs of remote work

When the Great Recession hit back in 2008, many US companies downsized their office space to save money and began allowing, or even encouraging, employees to work from home. But what was born from necessity has stuck around long after the economy rebounded. It turned out that remote work has benefits besides cheaper office rent.

While the broad impacts of remote work have yet to be measured across industries and for extended lengths of time, initial studies have found that it can increase productivity and lower employee turnover. A recent Harvard Business Review study of US Patent and Trade Office workers found their output increased by 4.4 percent after a transition to remote work, with no significant increase in having to rewrite patents due to appeals. And a Stanford study of a 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency found that remote work increased employee satisfaction and helped halve the agency’s previous employee attrition rates.

“There’s less distraction from people talking in the office,” Rehmet, who was the first in her office to work remotely, said. “I’m more productive. I have the ability to concentrate and create my own environment.”

Osoria, who’s a lead developer at the Council of Foreign Relations, says he’s just as productive at home. “If I’m in the office, there are coffee breaks, interruptions, socializing — that’s not happening at home.”

Lavalette, who owns an interior design business called LAVA Interiors, says she’s markedly more productive working remotely.

“It’s required me to be more organized and thoughtful about my schedule,” she said.

In its State of Remote Work survey, social media management company Buffer found that 99 percent of remote workers would like to continue working remotely at least part of the time for the rest of their careers, and 95 percent would recommend it to others.

This type of work has also been a boon for parents who need more flexibility in their schedules to accommodate child care, school events, and sick kids, though trying to work from home with children has its own pitfalls.

In general, companies’ growing acceptance of remote work signifies wider acknowledgment that it’s important to offer employees flexibility and more options for balancing work and their personal lives.

And in a near full-employment economy, to be competitive in recruiting the best talent, employers are under pressure to offer remote work as a perk.

Countless startups operate remotely from their launch. The computer manufacturer Dell, which is headquartered in Texas, wants to have 50 percent of its workforce working remotely at least some of the time by next year. Amazon recently hired 3,000 remote customer service workers, putting it in the top 10 for most remote jobs listed in 2018, above other well-known remote-friendly companies like UnitedHealth Group, Salesforce, and SAP.

“It became a strategic initiative rather than just a tactical one,” Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, told Recode.

“I don’t look at it as a perk; I look at it as a requirement,” Osoria, whose team has increasingly moved remote even though his overall organization hasn’t, said. “Whoever I work for next, if they tell me I can’t work remotely, I’m not working for them.”

Osoria is surprised more people don’t work remotely.

“Everyone who has to crack a laptop potentially has the freedom of working remotely,” he said.

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Remote work does have its share of problems. Some people dislike working in the same place where they live and relax, and it can be difficult to create and maintain a company culture without people being in the same room. 

“For some situations, it’s good to have a face-to-face connection,” Rehmet said. But she added, “I still talk to everyone every single day.”

Also, when people are always connected through technology, it can be hard to stop working. 

“I think it’s hard as a business owner who also works remotely because I do sometimes work on weekends. That’s just what it takes sometimes,” Lavalette said. 

The Buffer survey cited the most common downsides to remote work are the inability to unplug, loneliness, and difficulty collaborating. That same flexibility remote work enables can create an always-on culture. Perhaps surprisingly, working at home can lead to longer hours than they would have in a traditional office setting.