June 16, 2024

The sound of the internet when Ravi Gajendran began working remotely was a series of electronic pings, squeaks and buzzing. Many people got online using CD-ROMs found tucked in as ads in magazines.

(If you don’t know what a CD-ROM or a magazine is, well, look them up in an encyclopedia, if you can find one of those.)

Gajendran worked with a group of people who shared one laptop. It was the 1990s and he was working for consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble first in India and then in Singapore. One of his products was Vicks, the VapoRub and cough drops brand.

His commute back then was exhausting and working from home “was a luxury.”

It was the spark that he nurtured as he left the private sector for academia.

“That’s what got me interested. I really wanted to understand how can people work together effectively, even though they’re not in the same place in the same time,” he said.

Today, Gajendran is a professor at FIU’s business school studying remote work.

At the turn of the 21st Century, working remotely was not commonplace for most industries. “About 20 years later, it did have its moment,” he said.

Has it ever.

After barely climbing a decade ago, working from home exploded thanks to a virus.

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About one in every seven workers worked from home in 2022, according to Census Bureau data. It was one out of 20 just five years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced offices to close and workers were sent home.

Even now, a year after the federal government officially let its public health emergency declaration expire, millions more people are working from home as compared to before the germ.

Gajendran and his co-authors looked at more than 160 studies to determine if remote workers work more than people going into an office. And if remote workers are better or worse off than their in-person peers.

“The headline is that remote work has small but positive effects overall,” he concluded.

The only downside he found was the more days one works out of the office, the more isolated one feels. But that loneliness is balanced by the flexibility of working from home. The negatives of working from home essentially are balanced by the positives, he found in his review of previous studies.

“What we find is things like supervisor-rated job performance, job satisfaction, autonomy, flexibility, reducing turnover intentions — remote work has small but beneficial effects,” he said during an interview with WLRN, appropriately enough, over Zoom.

And as for the nagging worries about remote workers lagging off when they’re not in their office or cubicle?

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“We don’t have evidence in our data that supervisors or managers think that remote workers are less productive,” he said. “In fact, we have the opposite evidence that remote workers are somewhat better performers.”

Now, before someone walks into their boss’ office and demands to be able to work from home because Gajendran’s research said they’ll be better workers, he did not find any strong evidence that remote work causes better performance. It could be the better one does one’s job, the more apt a boss may be to allow that employee to work from home.

“There is no clear evidence that things are breaking apart or remote work leads to poor performance in our data,” Gajendran said.

Office buildings

There are continued worries about the impact on commercial estate from workers not returning to offices. Leasing of office space was down 12% in the first quarter compared to the end of 2023, according to global commercial real estate firm JLL. Yet, it was up 14% in the U.S. from a year earlier.

FIU Business School Professor Ravi Gajendran.

FIU Business School Professor Ravi Gajendran.

And within the U.S., it is a mixed picture. Office rentals in New York City and San Francisco were down by about 10% or more. “The demand for office space in Miami remains robust,” said a first quarter report on the market from Avison Young. In Miami-Dade, office vacancies rose the fastest in Aventura, up 4.2% from a year earlier. Vacancies were roughly flat in Broward and up less than 1% in Palm Beach County.

Moving hundreds or even thousands of miles away from what would have been a traditional office only to work remotely full-time is a trend Gajendran thinks is “played out.” Hybrid work arrangements where employees are expected to be in-person certain days per week or per month are beneficial to Florida and metropolitan areas with good transportation connections, he said.

Placer.ai found office visits in April in Miami were 86% of what they were before COVID-19. That marks the busiest in-office month since the pandemic. The data exams foot traffic in office buildings.

“If [companies] see hybrid work as the mainstay work arrangement where we want employees to come back two or three days a week, then commercial real estate will be okay,” Gajendran said.

Still, there will continue to be pressure on companies to reassess their square footage if all their workers are not swiping in every morning. “There is going to be an impact as companies rationalize [what] remote work means for their real estate footprint,” he said.


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