What COVID-19 Means for the Future of Remote Work

The coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of employees to work from home. In the months and years ahead, experts say remote work will only become more prevalent.
Mike Thomas
April 5, 2020
Updated: May 19, 2020
Mike Thomas
April 5, 2020
Updated: May 19, 2020

As remote work becomes increasingly necessary across America and around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no shortage of advice on how to be your “most productive” self while toiling outside the office. But much of that advice has to do with combing your hair and buying the right desk chair and separating your workspace from your bedroom — which is all well and good, but fails to address far deeper issues.

Although working remotely is now widely seen as a temporary measure, experts say it’s more likely to become the norm. That’s certainly the view at TaxJar. In a blog post earlier this month, the 160-employee and fully remote company posted five insights for those who are new to this office-less world. By and large they’re very practical — tips about effective communication and having the right tools and the importance of staying connected.

“We recommend treating a temporary remote work situation less like a field trip and more like what it truly is — the future of work.”

But one in particular stands out: “We recommend treating a temporary remote work situation less like a field trip and more like what it truly is — the future of work. And if you take your company remote for a time and decide to switch back to co-located work, be prepared with a strong argument as to why you’re making the change.”

 

Taking a cue from tech

During less tumultuous times, according to remote work strategist Laurel Farrer, it typically takes six to 12 weeks for a smooth transition from on-site to remote work. The CEO of Connecticut-based Distribute Consulting, Farrer said companies are now having to make the leap immediately and improvisationally. As a result, many of them must adjust on the fly to deal with a lack of equipment and policies, insufficient broadband access, missing or inadequate software, appropriate cybersecurity measures and other elements that would typically fall into place given weeks or months to plan ahead. And so, whereas many companies have gradually been testing the remote work waters and ordering up case studies to see if going virtual might be a possibility for their respective organizations, they’re now realizing it’s an inevitability. “It went from, ‘Is this happening?’ to ‘It’s here. How can we make this sustainable?’” Farrer said.

Does that mean we’ll see widespread wholesale conversion from on-site to virtual? Probably not — in the short term, anyway. But considering 56 percent of companies worldwide already allow remote work to varying degrees, it will become an even more prominent part of many businesses — including those in the tech sector, where it’s been the norm for many years. And not just among shuffleboard-and-kombucha startups; even behemoths like Facebook, Amazon and Google are cool with it.

“Because the tech world has the highest saturation of knowledge-based workers and due to the type of tasks that they complete, they’ve been able to accelerate and incubate remote work at a higher saturation level than other industries,” Farrer said. “This is why we saw the birth of fully distributed companies. So what we can now do is take the best practices and strategies of those companies, break them out of the tech silo and share them with other industries.”

There’s a major cost element at play too. Tech organizations have long known that, besides offering employees more flexibility and broadening the prospective talent pool, remote work is very often cheaper for employers — reportedly $11,000 cheaper, on average, when it’s instituted on just a part-time basis. Capitalism being a bottom-line game, that kind of data is hard to ignore. And it’s only the start, according to a recent study by Global Workplace Analytics: remote work is also better for the environment, so there’s that.

 

‘Strengthening the human element’

Chris Dyer
Photo: Chris Dyer

But it’s no simple feat to make the transition, especially for large outfits that until now have merely dabbled in remote work; those that were heading toward a less centralized workplace BC (before coronavirus) have an easier time of it. Consultant and PeopleG2 CEO Chris Dyer says outdated management practices can leave many companies mired in the past. Planning for the future requires a major mental pivot. “They’ve had these ideas about workers having to be together, that if you can’t see them, you can't manage them. Now people are being forced to do something different and finding out there’s real value in it. It eliminates all of the driving and traffic and stress. And employees who can now work without interruption and may be far more productive than they’ve ever been.”

Shifting from mostly on-site to fully remote, however, is considerably more complicated than just sending employees home with laptops. As Dyer explains, it also requires significant shifts in management practices and communication methods. Holding lots of one-on-one meetings, which are typical in office settings, is “a company killer.” Instead, collaborative team meetings should be the norm so everyone is on the same page and there’s plenty of transparency. Otherwise, he says, it’s too easy to become siloed, which only sews confusion and negatively affects workflow. That’s where clear expectations, KPIs and the tools to support them are crucial. In the absence of paper rustling and staplers clicking and the general bustle of human activity, which often give the illusion of productivity, only the end result counts.

Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting

Still, Farrer says, there’s a stigma to remote work that many of those in top management can’t seem to shake. For that to change as off-site employees become an increasingly common part of the corporate workforce, managers need to further develop and more strategically deploy so-called “soft skills” that bolster communication and increase levels of trust. They’ll also need to ditch the antiquated notion that strict monitoring equals higher productivity.

“We’re not giving our workforce enough credit,” Farrer says. “To say that productivity is dependent on close supervision and management is quite demeaning. So we really need to empower our individuals, and I think that's what the future of work is all about: strengthening the human element.”

“We really need to empower our individuals, and I think that's what the future of work is all about: strengthening the human element.”

Workers, too, bear no small amount of responsibility. Being more independent requires greater levels of proactivity (frequently updating managers about work challenges, what’s coming down the pike, etc.), more polished interpersonal skills and a greater degree of empathy to compensate for the dearth of physical proximity. After all, body language and tone communicate volumes but are often absent or less obvious in emails, Slack messages and videoconferencing.

 

company culture
Photo: Shutterstock

Culture is culture — with or without ping-pong

A 2018 study on remote work engagement by researchers at Walden University found that “remote workers experience strengthened and sustained levels of workplace engagement more when working in environments where they have a personal connection to the organization’s mission and vision, and where they feel the work culture is familial.”

In the tech world, especially, culture has long been pedestalled as crucial to success. Employees that respect one another, share a common vision and feel appreciated by their supervisors, studies have shown, are far more apt to enjoy their work and perform better. But how is that culture maintained if everyone’s not in one place? It takes some doing, Dyer says, but it’s definitely possible.

Having authored The Power of Company Culture, Dyer knows his way around the subject.

“If your company has a great culture, it has a great culture,” he said. “It doesnt matter if youre all in the same place or not. Its easy for people to settle on ping-pong tables and beer on Friday as a way to foster culture and connectedness. You just have to do it in a different way when you’re remote.”

Besides bolstering trust and communication among internal teams, that might mean holding a companywide virtual happy hour or weekly all-hands celebrations of individual accomplishments. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, and each company must decide what works best for them.

“Culture is actually more important in a virtual environment.”

“Culture is actually more important in a virtual environment,” Farrer said, “because being part of a very dynamic and engaging culture is how remote workers separate their work from their life in the same environment. So when they log on, they really feel like theyre part of something and very connected to their teammates. That tells their brain it’s work time. And then when they shut their laptops but are still sitting in the same 1,200 square feet, thats personal time.”

Farrer added that “culture not only can be converted [to a remote scenario], but should be converted to prevent remote worker isolation, increase employee engagement and [enhance] productivity.”

So even if sheltering-in-place goes on for months (fingers crossed it doesnt), its possible to carry on with at least a semblance of normalcy. Lets call it the new normalcy. Someday in the not-too-distant future, according to our experts, it wont even be new. “Remote work,” they say, will simply be “work.” And because necessity is the mother of invention, were being pushed toward that future more quickly than anyone ever imagined.

“This scenario will certainly expand its reach and abilities, and probably instigate quite a bit of innovation,” Dyer says. “People are going to figure out that there’s a bunch of stuff we could be doing better, and new companies, new technologies and new ways to handle this will come about.”

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