By Ed Brennen
When tens of millions of Americans were suddenly forced to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of workforce scholars from the Manning School of Business
realized they were living through an unparalleled research opportunity.
“There’s been an embarrassment of riches with this potential data all around us and this urgency to capture it every step of the way,” says
Prof. Kimberly Merriman
For the past year, Merriman has been working with Asst. Prof. of Management Tamara Montag-Smit
and two students — David Greenway
, a doctoral candidate in leadership and organizational studies
, and Teri Leavens, an online MBA
student — to investigate how remote work is changing the landscape for talent.
Case in point: Nearly 10% of job listings on LinkedIn in late May involved remote work
, up from around 2% the year before.
The Manning team’s research
, which has garnered media coverage from NPR
and the BBC
, has examined why some employees plan to continue working remotely post-pandemic, why some say there’s a disconnect with their employers over future remote-work expectations, and how the pandemic has created a shift in the power dynamic in the labor market.
“The pandemic flipped the switch on remote and decentralized work. For many, especially tech and knowledge workers, the shift is here to stay,” says Merriman, who recently answered some questions about the team’s ongoing research.
Q: How did the research start and what has it entailed thus far?
A: Tamara, a relatively new faculty member who hasn’t had a chance to be physically immersed on campus, was the catalyst. She reached out in fall 2020 to collaborate. Our initial wave of qualitative data was from July 2020. We analyzed nearly 3,000 responses from a business and technology newsletter survey and found that nearly half the respondents were either planning to relocate during the pandemic or had recently done so. Some stayed within a commutable distance with hopes that their jobs would become a hybrid of working from home and on site. But the segment that was most intriguing was the ones who moved farther away. Many of them had reason to believe they would be allowed to work remotely from anywhere after the pandemic. Some expressed that, if they needed to, they would leave their job when the time came. Then, as things started to reopen this spring, we did a smaller qualitative data collection through Reddit, where employees were talking anonymously about what their organizations were doing in terms of remote-work policies. We got some very rich information from those responses.
Q: Why does the distinction between “working from home” and “working from anywhere” matter?
A: “Working from home” is usually part of a hybrid work policy where you need to be in the office a certain number of days a week. Companies like Apple, for example, have said that workers need to be on site three days a week. When companies do that, it’s implicitly restricting how far you’ll live from the office. When companies take it a step further and say which days you have to be on site, then they’re making sure you don’t take off anywhere for too long. It’s controlling, which is fine for many people. But it doesn’t come close to providing the level of flexibility that people have become used to over the past year during COVID.
When we say “work from anywhere,” it’s usually a much more flexible arrangement. You get to come into the office less frequently, or maybe not at all. You get to move farther away because you have that flexibility. Even if you’re not moving farther away, you get to reliably be there to get your kids on the bus or walk the dog or whatever it is that’s motivating your desire to have that level of flexibility. Both serve a purpose, but there are people who prefer one to the other.
Q: How has there been a power shift in the labor market?
A: The labor market has opened up widely, with more companies providing the ability to work remotely. That means you’re not geographically relocating to work there, so it gives employees more options. But beyond that, what we’re seeing in the data is a shift in people’s mindset post-pandemic. They’ve readjusted their priorities. Even workers who are not in a position to do remote work are feeling empowered to ask for more in terms of work-life balance. They are asking for things like control and predictability of scheduling.
Q: What does this mean for recent UML grads just entering the job market?
A: The first question is, do they want to work fully remotely if they could? The next question is, when they apply, will they be able to ask for that if that’s what they want? If you know you want to work remotely, there are certain fields where those jobs are more plentiful, like software engineering and account management. LinkedIn does a great job updating what types of jobs are posting more remote positions. I think our students — the ones who want remote positions — will need to choose what type of work they’re doing to increase their chances of getting that. But they are going to be competing with more people who also want remote positions. It’s opened up the labor market in both directions. But the more companies that are able to offer this type of work, the more our students will be able to have that as an option.
Q: What can companies learn from this unprecedented remote-work experiment?
A: When it comes to remote-work policies, companies should really think about whether the limitation is in the job or in how they perceive the job. And leaders at all levels are starting to realize that they can’t state what’s going to happen in a memo — it needs to be a conversation. They need to at least give employees a voice. Many companies were already doing this with things like engagement surveys, but the more that can be done, the more employees will be likely to stay. Research has shown that if you feel like your voice is heard, you’ll feel like the outcome is more fair, even if it’s not the outcome you wanted.
Q: What can employees learn?
A: We’ve all had to become better communicators, because if you’re not, problems happen when you’re remote. When we lose the face-to-face interaction and communicate remotely, any weakness in your communication style is exposed. So I think employees have learned to communicate more clearly, more explicitly. And it’s going to take a lot of patience all the way around because employees and employers are still trying to figure out how to evolve this.
Q: Finally, as researchers, how gratifying is it to see your work resonate with such a wide audience?
A: We’re certainly glad to be part of the conversation, but the most gratifying part is how our students have contributed to this. David will be going on the job market soon, and for him to say that he was interviewed by NPR about his research is invaluable. And Teri, who did an independent study with me this spring, worked on a project in parallel with our research on parents working remotely. That resulted in her being first author on an article that has been accepted by MIT Sloan Management Review and is currently going through the editing process. The fact that all this has happened, with all of us meeting virtually over the past year, just amazes me.