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Education

Remote Work Is Here To Stay, And It May Be A Sign Of Employees' Growing Power

Illustration of woman working on a laptop while sitting on a couch. A black cat is curled up next to her.
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Remote work became the norm for office employees during the pandemic. Now, people are demanding more flexibility from their companies as the work-force returns to “normal.”

For Joshua Aikens, there’s no putting Pandora back in the box when it comes to remote work. He’s chief of staff at Zonos, a St. George-based e-commerce company.

The business has grown significantly during the pandemic, from 34 employees at the start of 2020 to 96 employees today. They were all forced into remote work when the lock-down began. Aikens said he had little understanding of how to best manage a virtual office. He had heard about a course called the Remote Online Initiative — or ROI — through Utah State University. It trains employees, entrepreneurs and business leaders how to make remote work better. But it wasn’t until he saw his office was likely to close that he tried it.

“I was looking at it from the manager's perspective,” Aikens said. “How do you hire remote employees? How do you make them feel like that they're part of the culture of the organization, policies that you need to have in place, all that kind of stuff.”

Aikens said most of his company’s employees have since returned to the office, but about 20% are still remote. Having that option allowed him to hire people in Florida, North Carolina and from overseas — ”grizzly veterans” as he put it — that would probably never have joined a little startup in St. George if they had to move.

That kind of forced adoption of remote work gave companies a trial run, which often leads to more permanent changes, said Paul Hill, a USU extension professor and director of the ROI program.

“We're seeing the workplace become more flexible, because people as well as organizations experienced those benefits,” Hill said. “They saw cost savings, the decreasing commute and what that effect has on productivity during the day.”

The ROI program began in 2018 to help workers in rural Utah land remote jobs, but it has been expanding its scope and reach over the last year. The U.S. Department of Commerce recently awarded the program a $1.1 million grant, which Hill said will be used to further develop the leadership side.

Hill said with the increased adoption of remote work and more research around how to do it better, employees are getting a leg up in the economy. Remote work has to be thought out and tailored to each organization, he said, and it’s incumbent on managers to create environments that better cater to people who aren’t in the office.

“When you just look at supply and demand of talent, employees have more power then a lot of employers might realize at the moment,” he said. “If I'm hiring right now, I have to increase my wages and offer some more flexibility if I want to get the best talent.”

Hill said that also means employers are having to rethink some traditional assessment practices — like measuring how hard someone works by monitoring the time they spend at their desk.

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