Since the COVID pandemic already left its mark on 2020 pushing employees to work from their homes, remote work has become one of the most popular topics of the first half of the year. The first several months of the pandemic naturally served as a trial period for many workers to test if working from distance will suit them in the long run. As you may expect the initial feedback varies. Some people loved it, others hated it, others say they need more time to decide.
Is Remote Work the Future?
It is without a doubt that the pandemic serves as an accelerator for companies to form a more remote-first oriented mindset. Giants like Facebook, Twitter and Fujitsu already expressed their plans to adapt their work policies so that they allow for remote working post-pandemic. While I believe that remote work will be widely adopted and become the norm, it will not happen overnight. It will take years, probably even the next decades for bigger companies to transform and really set the trend.
The reason is that there are many hurdles that have to be overcome along the way.
Chair time vs result
The concept of having all employees in an office, going to it every day at 9 o’clock sharp and thinking about it as the main place of business shifts the focus from how effectively they do their work and what results they bring to just ‘making your hours’ in the office. Subliminally when they think about work, they think more about a location, the office, rather than the nature of their professional field, what they do on a daily basis and how exactly they add value.
Work is what you do, not a place you go.
Working from a distance, on the other hand, encourages people to think more about the results. Since you can work asynchronously (if your position allows for it), the focus is put on the output of your work rather than when or where you start and finish your workday. That shift in mindset will happen slowly.
Dividing the workforce
Companies that employ thousands of employees cannot just switch to a remote-first philosophy easily, so they will gradually migrate to a remote-friendly one, meaning only a percentage of all employees will work from distance. Splitting employees into two divisions, however, hides its own concerns. Office workers create different habits from the remote ones and that may result in a different experience depending on the side you are in and hence could create disbalance in the long term for an organization.
In fact, many developers that say they had a bad experience working remotely were part of a remote-friendly work environment of some sort. So, it is going to be quite interesting to observe how companies like Facebook - whose plans are to potentially have half of its workforce remote over the next five to ten years - tackle that challenge.
Remote work means responsibility
There are many articles on the internet that describe the benefits of remote work - enhanced work-life balance, no commuting, more flexibility and so on, but very few put focus on one other aspect, that migrating to a remote-oriented model also means shifting responsibility and control to employees.
For example, being a remote employee now you must create your own office area at home where you can be focused and productive. You might be challenged by a shortage of space or distractions from family members etc. You will have to organize your schedule too. It is a list of small decisions that you will have to make which are simply non-existent in a standard 9-5 office environment where the employer took care of those for you.
Preserving a company’s growth rate is a tough job and a huge priority for every management. That is why companies create growth plans and set targets on a quarterly, yearly, and ten-year basis to ensure they are growing at a constant rate. Each change that may interfere with its growth is carefully examined. And migrating to a remote company is just that - a manoeuvre that can potentially shake a company’s growth trajectory.
Regardless of all benefits that it can bring, remote work will also be viewed from the angle of it being a liability when weighing pros and cons before the green light. Put yourself in the shoes of a stakeholder who must vote for or against working remotely. You will probably hear phrases like increased productivity, more creativity, happier employees, faster growth etc. But it is logical to also have doubts like whether employees will be disciplined enough and will not start slacking.
There are always two sides to every coin, right. That is why I expect that many companies will refrain from going remote and will keep developing at their current, slower but more predictable pace until others take the chances and lead the way.
Investment in education
A factor in a company’s decision making is the needed investment of both time and money to educate its staff before allowing them to work from wherever they want. I am referring to skills and knowledge about security, effective communication, time management & productivity. It is a common practice to hire consultants, provide courses and training before such tangible changes.
By covering the above-mentioned angles my main point was to illustrate that remote work revolution will happen rather gradually and in iterations, even though it might feel as easy as just taking your laptop home. And, naturally, not all factors will have the same effect on companies. Huge enterprises will be most affected while small and medium-sized firms will have smoother transitions. The smaller the business is, the more intuitive it will be to go remote as the new opportunities can be vital.
Especially for startups it really feels natural to reach for the global pool of talent. Most of the time they operate with limited resources at least in their early days, but at the same time have ambitious DNA and seek quicker expansion to new foreign markets. So, depending on the local talent can be far from sufficient.
The office will not die, it will adapt
The office will certainly not go extinct. People will still need physical space to gather as face to face interaction is irreplaceable. Businesses depend on real relationships and they are built and fostered with in-person communication over time. If you’ve watched Hitch you’d know that:
60% of all human communication is nonverbal, body language. 30% is your tone. So that means that 90% of what you’re saying ain’t coming out of your mouth.Alex “Hitch” Hitchens
By collaborating over messages and video calls you can only bond with a colleague or a business partner to a certain extent as it blurs the majority of the communication which is nonverbal like gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact (or lack thereof), body language, posture. So, for many positions, it will be hard to ditch tradition and they will continue to be predominantly office-based.
Others will become fully remote, so we can definitely expect a reduction of the open office areas. Offices will become more specialized. Since employees will be able to fulfil most of their daily duties at home, they will go to the office only when they need to carry out a specific task for which the former will be suitably equipped.
Successful work policy
For the years to come, I believe successful companies will be those that start with a remote-first mindset from day one (or manage to transition to) so that employees are allowed and encouraged to work remotely while at the same time still maintain an office, which remote workers can occasionally use if they need to. In other words, providing vast flexibility.
In that regard finding the right office size will definitely be a challenge. On one hand, it should be big enough to fit in a relatively big percentage of all remote workers if they need to gather, but on the other hand, it should not be left unused 95% of the time. After all remote work is also an opportunity for companies to cut down on office expenses and invest the money in other areas.
Hence, the firms that manage to keep the right balance, will have a sharp competitive edge.