Will the economic downturn reverse remote work trends?

As the global economy slows, will the rise in remote work slow with it?

Around the world, the signs are not good. Inflation is high and rising, growth is slowing, and real wages are falling. In tech, companies that were riding high on VC money only a couple of years ago are now making layoffs. 

Since the pandemic, remote work has become the rule rather than the exception. We’ve been moving to a ‘remote first’ world with new behaviours, cultures and tools. However, will the dire economic situation (many experts predict a recession by the end of 2022) affect the trend towards remote first?

In this article, we’ll examine the arguments for and against remote work in an economic downturn. We’ll also bring you the thoughts of four experts in the remote work space, delivered by our Leading Remotely podcast, which you can find on all podcast platforms.

Why we could see less remote work in a weaker economy

As author Tamara Sanderson told us on our podcast Leading Remotely, if you’re a leader who has climbed the corporate ladder in a traditional environment, you may have a traditional way of thinking. 

This mindset could include believing that better work gets done when everyone is in the office. When the very survival of your business could depend on everyone doing their best work, you’re probably thinking about calling everyone back in and reducing opportunities to work remotely.

There’s also a view that companies may call their employees back to the office knowing they won’t want to do it and quit, thereby avoiding the need to make layoffs. On the other hand, previously remote workers may want to spend more time in the office so they can ‘be seen’ by their managers and possibly avoid the axe when it falls.

Of course, none of these three reasons to slow remote work have much grounding in reality. But in hard times, people tend to go with what they know rather than take risks. 

Why remote work can survive the economic slowdown

Alternatively, there are many reasons to believe that the trend toward remote working can continue through the economic downturn:

  • Talented performers overwhelmingly prefer working remotely and see it as non-negotiable. Two-thirds of respondents to an ADP survey said they would consider looking for a new job if they were forced back to the office
  • You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The pandemic proved companies could be successful working remotely. Research by Stanford University discovered that remote workers are 9% more productive than office workers
  • Companies could use remote work to reduce costs. Going remote first means you pay less (if at all) for office space and utilities like gas and electricity. Remote work also boosts retention, which reduces hiring costs

Even if you’re tempted to turn the clock back and use traditional methods to combat the dire economic conditions, forward-thinking leaders will double down on remote work.

What the experts say

In our podcast, Leading Remotely, Wonder’s Matt Hayman talks to thought leaders in the remote work space about how to succeed with remote work. It’s no surprise that Matt’s guests believe that remote work should and will survive the economic downturn.

Jordan Carroll, The Remote Job Coach, talks to jobseekers and leaders in remote first companies every day, and he sees no evidence of a decline in the enthusiasm for remote work:

‘A lot of people are trying to hire software engineers, but you're not going to get them in your company if you don't have some really enticing benefits, good compensation and remote first culture. The best high performers out there have options, and they're going to choose options with remote first companies now.’

Sarah Hawley, founder of Growmotely.com, agrees:

‘I’m definitely not seeing any waning [of the appetite among employees for remote first roles]. Also, if I was a leader and my company was under strain due to the economic situation and I’m looking to cut costs, why not cut the office cost rather than the people cost? It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.’

Author Tamara Sanderson firmly believes that remote work is here to stay, whatever the state of the economy:

‘As we continue to question the status quo, you're going to see more norms break. So I think the next one to fall is the nine to five. As we add in more asynchronous communication, you can work on your time. You can work according to your rhythms and your energy, and your schedule. That’s when remote work looks really beautiful.’

Find out more

We’ve gone too far down the remote work road to turn back. While it’s distressing to see the world’s economy in such a dire state, remote work (when done well) brings so much value to companies and employees alike that it has to continue.

Remote work didn’t get us into this situation, but maybe it will get us out.

To listen to all our podcasts (and make sure you don’t miss any more), subscribe to Leading Remotely on your favourite podcast platform:

Will the economic downturn reverse remote work trends?