Remote work is a saving grace — and can increase productivity

Before the pandemic, working from the comfort of one’s home was a pipe dream for most people. But that’s changing. Apple, for example, recently announced its plan to implement a hybrid work program beginning Feb. 1, 2022. Apple’s remote-friendly plan isn’t particularly radical — in fact, it’s conservative compared to some other companies today. The companies behind Wikipedia, GitLab, WordPress, and PwC all have embraced work-from-anywhere policies. Even Amazon has opened virtual positions for certain areas. If the COVID-19 pandemic had any silver lining, it was that it proved the massive transition to remote work is both feasible and desirable.   

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

And yet, remote work, even with extreme time differences, is still a saving grace. It’s something I’ve been studying, and practicing, for years. 

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Remote synchronous work on different continents isn’t a new, pandemic-related phenomenon. For many people, it’s been around as long as technology has allowed it to be. Prior to the pandemic, digital nomads, who were often tech contractors, independent contractor lawyers, artists, architects, or business owners, worked remotely with extreme time differences to fulfill their dreams of travel. 

While people in these professions long have been able to control their hours and locations, you may be surprised that some traditional white-collar professionals also were able to work remotely before the pandemic. For example, it was not unusual for medical professionals who don’t see patients in person to work remotely with extreme time differences. As early as 2005, it was a common 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 U.S. or Americans who live abroad.  

Besides medicine, pre-pandemic remote work spanned a variety of other occupations. A friend of mine was a data scientist with a major financial firm, and he worked from home before the pandemic. He and many other employees of the company were able to do so because they needed to move to a different state, or even outside of the United States, for family reasons and the company did not want to lose talented employees. He said, “The remote work arrangement really helped with my family situation, as my wife’s work location was not flexible. However, I was worried that this could harm my chances of getting promoted in the future as remote work was still not standard in the company back then.”   

To many people, working remotely with extreme time differences is a saving grace. During the pandemic, many immigrants got to travel back home to be with family; most of them had traditional white-collar jobs. The ability to work remotely was a huge benefit because it allowed them to see their loved ones without losing their jobs. No matter the reasons, the flexibility and advantages of remote work, even with extreme time differences, must have outweighed the costs for people who chose to do so. Such benefits could significantly boost our personal satisfaction and happiness while we’re being productive members of society. 

My own experiences have shown me that working with extreme time differences 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 one project, I’m collaborating with a co-author who lives in Singapore. I work on our manuscript and provide comments on her writing while she sleeps; then, when I’m sleeping, she works on the manuscript based on my comments and provides comments on my writing. We practically work on the manuscript 24 hours every day and rarely wait to receive work from one another. We schedule virtual meetings during the few hours that we are both awake. Because our time to speak is limited, we both strive for maximum efficiency. We feel that unnecessary communications are reduced as a result. The time difference works in our favor and makes our collaboration efficient and satisfying.

Because of the feasibility and potential benefits of working remotely with extreme time differences, companies that offer only a hybrid remote work option should reconsider. As more countries start remote work programs that allow foreign workers to live in other countries, digital nomads may become more popular. The option of hybrid work isn’t good enough for everyone because hybrid work still ties employees down to their work vicinity. Only fully remote work would allow work from anywhere and open opportunities for talent across the world.

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.