Remote work is still 'frustrating and disorienting' for bosses, economist says—their No. 1 problem with it

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Remote work has plummeted from its pandemic high.

Less than 26% of U.S. households have someone working from home at least one day a week, down from a peak of 37% in early 2021, according to Census Bureau data.

Remote work's gradual decline reflects the ongoing push from companies to get employees back in the office: 43% of companies have set tighter limits around remote work or mandated some form of return-to-office over the past year, ZipRecruiter reports.

Business leaders have given various reasons for their disdain for the model, arguing that collaboration, mentorship and employee engagement all suffer without the office. 

But the biggest disadvantage of remote work that employers cite is how difficult it is to observe and monitor employees, according to a new report from ZipRecruiter, which surveyed more than 2,000 U.S. employers between July and August.

Although some bosses have recognized the benefits of remote work — and studies have shown that employees are often more productive and less likely to quit when they have some degree of workplace flexibility — many are still hesitant to adopt remote work permanently. Especially as major corporations such as Goldman Sachs, Zoom and Meta introduce stricter requirements for in-person work.

"It's an incredibly challenging, frustrating and disorienting time for employers when the tool they relied on most, observing employees in-person, is gone," ZipRecruiter chief economist Julia Pollak tells CNBC Make It

Pre-pandemic, bosses relied on desk visits and peer monitoring, which occurs when co-workers notice and comment on each other's work, to keep employees on track in the office, and there is no clear replacement for them in a remote setting, Pollak explains. 

Although demand for employee monitoring software has skyrocketed since 2020, companies still haven't figured out how to effectively measure remote workers' performance.

"It's hard to know which measure these software programs track even matters," Pollak adds. "A lot of knowledge work is done in video meetings, or offline in phone calls, research and brainstorming, and it's impossible to quantify all of that."

Research has shown that workplace surveillance can also backfire as it undermines employees' confidence in their managers and desire to be productive, which can lead to increased turnover.

Pollak offers a better solution: Invest in middle managers as connecting leaders between front-line employees and upper management and encourage them to work one-on-one with their direct reports to outline clear workflows and expectations.

"If the pandemic and 'great resignation' taught us anything, it's that managers need to be intentional and engaged with employees to be truly effective," says Pollak. "The challenges with remote work aren't going to be solved overnight, but making that change is a strong start."

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