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.
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.
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.
“The good news is the 9-5 boundaries have broken down; the bad news is the 9-5 boundaries have broken down,” Steve King, partner at small business consulting firm Emergent Research, told Recode. “Most people so far are happy to make that trade-off, to have flexibility in how they live life and work in exchange for sometimes knowing that at 9 o’clock at night you’ll be answering emails.”
How we work
Remote work has come to mean a spectrum of somewhere between always in the office and always remote. The constant is that there is choice.
But while remote work is becoming increasingly common, it’s still only an option for certain kinds of workers. First, remote work requires reliable, secure at-home broadband connections that can power video conferences. Because much of rural America lacks broadband internet, remote work is restricted to areas with access to that tech.
And the growth of remote work has been mostly concentrated among knowledge workers, who tend to be more educated and wealthier, though more manual or in-person labor has elements that can be — and are being — done remotely.
Technology advancements enabled remote work, but now remote workers’ demands are driving technology forward. New workplace communications software is coming out seemingly every month, promising to be the next, better, and more productive Slack. Video conferencing software company Zoom went public this spring, and video hardware makers are promising better and better cameras and viewing experiences, all in the hope of making video communication more natural.
It’s important to note that these same technologies are all used in-office, too.
“In reality, whether you’re nine feet, nine floors, or nine miles away, you’re probably communicating with colleagues remotely,” Lister said. “The tools to make sure everyone succeeds are the same tools you need for working remotely.”
The type of work people do has also changed as companies seek to cut costs and time in order to be more agile.
“We used to sit in our silos and do work,” King said. “Now it’s more cross-functional. If you’re working on marketing, you’d better have IT involved. If you do the marketing right and increase sales, you’ve got to have the supply chain involved.”
Working between departments, which may already be located in other offices, requires flexibility and remote communication because it’s unlikely all of these teams can be in the same place at the same time.
And when people have the choice, they’re opting out of commutes: The fastest-growing commute is not having one at all.
“This is New York City. Who wants to deal with being packed like sardines on the subway every morning?” said Osoria.
When Lavalette does take the bus into the city, she spends that time sketching designs on her computer and sending emails. “I’m not wasting time doing a commute every day,” she said. “It was such a time suck, whereas now I can be a lot more productive.”
Physical office space
Remote work, in addition to causing office attendance to decline, is having a profound effect on the design of physical offices that goes beyond just better wifi and more power outlets.
“Home has become the place for concentration,” Lister said. “Companies are completely transforming workplaces to be places of collaboration.”
According to Julie Whelan, head of occupier research at real estate firm CBRE, only about 50 percent of office space is now dedicated to “heads-down work,” which once took up the vast majority of office space.
That means fewer walls and more meeting spaces. Whelan sees four main types of space necessary for a modern office: focus space, collaborative space, private space for private conversations, and social space.
In a lot of ways, the office now “feels more like home,” Whelan said, with “softer finishes, colors more neutral, not typical grey cubicles everywhere.”
Lavalette is also seeing this shift in her own interior design work.
“People are investing more in the comfort and luxury of their homes because they’re spending more time there,” she said.
As for offices, she’s swapping in rugs instead of carpets or bare floors, vintage and custom desks instead of industrial furniture, and adjustable halogen or LEDs instead of fluorescent lights.
“I’m using more of a residential approach in my office design,” Lavalette said. “It is making the office feel more like home instead of a workspace.”
All these upgrades are a way to get people into the office — and to work for a company in the first place.
“It’s an outward sign of how you value employees,” Whelan said. “It tends to be what a lot of younger employees are expecting.”
Remote work has also contributed to the expansion of coworking spaces like WeWork, where remote workers can go to get some of the structure and amenities of an office without having to show up five days a week.
“Whether you believe WeWork is a real business, after all the drama surrounding its IPO, there’s a huge demand for coworking spaces,” Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork, a freelancing platform that went public last year, told Recode.
“You see more and more people in coffee shops and libraries, but also more in coworking spaces.”
These spaces allow office renters to forgo traditional 10-year leases in exchange for shorter-term leases, from three to five years or even on a monthly basis. This type of flexible office space now makes up nearly 2 percent of all office space in the 40 markets CBRE measures and is expected to grow to 13 percent by 2030.
That means companies leasing office space are not as locked in as they were previously. It also means more uncertainty for building owners as well as coworking spaces in the event of a recession, though Whelan says companies forced to downsize during a recession will move into these spaces and would create more demand for them.
Where we live
Ten years ago, even as technology came online that would enable people to work from anywhere, people continued to cluster in the biggest cities in what King calls the “paradox of place.”
As King put it, “The societal impact of remote work is, we’re finally starting to see what was promised in the first internet boom: more flexibility in where we live.”
After years of growth following the recession, America’s three biggest metro areas are now shrinking. Part of the reason is that Americans, particularly millennials, are “moving toward sun and some semblance of affordability,” Derek Thompson wrote in the Atlantic. Those areas include smaller, secondary cities, as well as rural areas.
Working remotely helps workers compensate for stagnating wages by making city salaries go further in less expensive locations. (A study by Owl Labs, a company that makes smart videoconferencing cameras, found that more than a third of workers said they would take a pay cut of up to 5 percent in exchange for the ability to work from home some of the time.)
Remote work is also helping to bring in money and talent to smaller communities, some of which are even incentivizing remote workers to relocate there.
Vermont is offering $10,000 grants to encourage people from out of state to spend their time — and money — in the state. Utah is offering businesses grants to create remote jobs in less economically prosperous parts of the states. Massachusetts is proposing to reduce traffic by giving people $2,000 tax credits to work from home.
“What we’re starting to see is people saying they can’t deal with the cost of living, congestion, or they have other constraints in their lives and they say, ‘I want to be out of San Francisco,’” Kasriel said. (San Francisco has some of the highest cost of living of any city, meaning that even highly paid tech workers can’t afford to buy homes.)
Kasriel believes the shift is happening now for two reasons: Millennials, who are more amenable to remote work, are aging into management positions where they’re able to decide if people can work remotely, and a tighter labor market is forcing employers to acquiesce to employee demands.
Rehmet, who had attempted to leave her job when she was offered the ability to work remotely, is now able to afford a mortgage for a fifth of the $2,500 she was paying monthly for rent in Brooklyn.
“What we were spending on general existence dropped substantially,” she said.
She also sees the move as a way to revitalize her area upstate, where she opened a bar and restaurant called Hollow.
“These are communities that have been hit by hard times through the financial crisis and through outsourcing and through manufacturing and things like that going away,” she said. “Working remotely really provides an opportunity for people to move back into a more rural existence that otherwise wouldn’t be an option.”
Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham recently wrote a book about how working remotely enabled him to leave urban Baltimore for small-town Minnesota.
“My wife and I had 2-year-old twins. We were living in a 950-square-foot row house. I was commuting three hours every single day for work. We had no time, no money, no space, and were trying to figure out what to do,” he told Vox of his situation in Baltimore. Moving to Minnesota halved his mortgage payments.
What the future brings
As remote work becomes more common, its effects are going to increase.
“Multiple trends are driving the growth of remote work, and these trends, if anything, are getting stronger,” King said. “So we’re confident remote work will increase in the coming years.”
Lister estimates that by 2025, some 70 percent of the workforce will work remotely at least five days a month. “I think the percentage of people with compatible jobs will expand as knowledge-based work continues to edge out jobs that require a physical presence,” Lister said.
And current acceptance of the practice will only make it more ubiquitous over time, Whelan told Recode.
“The idea of anyone needing to work from one location every day 40 hours a week will seem even more antiquated than it already does today,” she said.
What is now an incentive or perk will soon become a necessity, especially as aging boomers and millennials alike both try to square their desire to travel with the need to make money.
If remote work is the product of demand for a better work-life balance, the future could tip in favor of the life side of that equation.
“You can run off and do exciting things you couldn’t do otherwise,” Rehmet said. “That’s what life’s about.”