Remote work is a saving grace — and can boost productivity

Before the pandemic, working from the comfort of your home was a pipe dream for most people. But that is changing. Apple, for example, recently announced plans to implement a hybrid work program beginning February 1, 2022. Apple’s remote use plan isn’t particularly sweeping – in fact, it’s conservative by compared to some other companies today. The companies behind Wikipedia, GitLab, WordPress, and PwC have all adopted work-from-anywhere policies. Even Amazon has opened virtual positions for certain domains. If the COVID-19 pandemic had a silver lining, it’s proven that the massive shift to remote working is both doable and desirable.

Most companies, even those with work-from-anywhere policies, still expect the majority of work to take place in a limited geographic area. Their remote work policies often have limits on time zones. For example, Facebook only supports its US employees to work remotely in the US or Canada. There can be many reasons behind this decision. Legal issues related to taxes and employee health insurance and data privacy concerns could be relevant. More importantly, it can be hard to imagine how an American employee working remotely in Asia, for example, could cope with an entirely different work schedule.

And yet, working remotely, even with extreme time differences, remains a saving grace. This is something I have studied and practiced for years.

Synchronous remote work on different continents is not a new phenomenon related to the pandemic. For many people, it has been around for as long as technology allows. Before the pandemic, digital nomads, who were often tech entrepreneurs, freelance lawyers, artists, architects, or business owners, worked remotely with extreme time differences to fulfill their travel dreams.

While people in these professions have long been able to control their hours and locations, you may be surprised that some traditional white-collar professionals were also able to work remotely before the pandemic. For example, it was not unusual for healthcare professionals who do not see patients in person to work remotely with extreme time differences. As early as 2005, it was standard procedure for many medical institutions to send scans overnight to radiologists in foreign countries for timely and crucial medical judgments. Many of these radiologists were immigrants who returned to their home countries after training in the United States or Americans living abroad.

Besides medicine, remote work before the pandemic covered a variety of other professions. A friend of mine was a data scientist at a large financial company and he was working from home before the pandemic. He and many other employees of the company were able to do this because they had to move to another state, or even outside the United States, for family reasons and the company did not want to lose talented employees. He said: “Remote work has really helped my family situation as my wife’s workplace was not flexible. However, I was worried that it would hurt my chances of being promoted in the future, as remote working was not yet the norm in the company at the time.

For many people, working remotely with extreme jet lag is a saving grace. During the pandemic, many immigrants had to return home to be with their families; most of them had traditional white-collar jobs. The ability to work remotely was a huge plus as it allowed them to see loved ones without losing their jobs. Whatever the reasons, the flexibility and benefits of working remotely, even with extreme time differences, must have outweighed the costs for people who chose to do so. Such benefits could greatly increase our personal satisfaction and happiness while being productive members of society.

My own experiences have shown me that working with extreme jet lag can actually increase productivity. I live on the east coast of the United States. I often conduct research on East and Southeast Asia and have many collaborators in Asia. For a project, I collaborate with a co-author who lives in Singapore. I work on our manuscript and comment on her writing while she sleeps; then, when I sleep, she works on the manuscript according to my comments and comments on my writing. We work on the manuscript practically around the clock and rarely wait to receive work from each other. We schedule virtual meetings for the few hours we are both awake. Because our speaking time is limited, we both aim for maximum efficiency. We believe that unnecessary communications are thereby reduced. The jet lag works in our favor and makes our collaboration efficient and satisfying.

Due to the feasibility and potential benefits of working remotely with extreme time differences, companies that only offer a hybrid remote working option should reconsider. As more countries launch remote work programs that allow foreign workers to live in other countries, digital nomads may become more popular. The option of hybrid working is not enough for everyone, because hybrid working still binds employees to their working environment. Only fully remote work would allow working from anywhere and open up opportunities for talent across the globe.

Emma Zang, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at Yale University. Her research interests include health and aging, marriage and family, and inequality. Follow her on Twitter @DrEmmaZang.

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