What Does the Current Remote Working Environment Mean for the Future of Work?
While remote work positions are nothing new, the widespread necessity of working from home during COVID-19 is a first for many companies.
The sudden shift from office to home required a lot of last-minute adjustments so businesses could enable their employees to work remotely. These adjustments became especially cumbersome for companies with multiple office locations and large numbers of employees. Files stored on company servers had to be made available to everyone from their homes through VPNs. Internal and client meetings moved to virtual conferencing apps like Zoom and GoToMeeting. And many company leaders found themselves rethinking daily workflows and processes to ensure minimal interruptions to business and their employees’ ability to accomplish tasks.
Nearly two months have passed since remote working began for companies that were able to make the transition. Much of those adjustments have been ironed out and many work-from-home employees have settled into a “new normal” – albeit a challenging one as school closures, social distancing, and a highly uncertain economy further complicate life in general.
We understand that everyone’s work situation during COVID-19 is vastly different; before the pandemic, only 29% of Americans were able to work from home. But with this very sudden onset of the world’s largest work-from-home experiment (dubbed as such by Time), it begs the question – how could it change the future of work?
Paying Off a Trend Toward Working Remotely in a Way No One Expected
Before COVID-19 hit, many companies had instituted work-from-home policies and found success in doing so. Dell, for example, was already aiming to have 50% of its workforce working remotely by 2020, citing a desire to show their employees that leadership encouraged flexibility and trusted them to be organized and meet their daily professional priorities.
Many employees say they are more productive when they work from home – in fact, a survey by Airtasker found that remote workers actually work more than three additional weeks per year, are distracted for less time during the day, and are interrupted less frequently during the day than their office counterparts.
In 2019, Forbes called remote working “the new normal”, asserting that the advances in technology coupled with changing employee expectations were pushing many workplace positions in a remote-work direction.
Then, COVID-19 hit and pushed thousands of companies around the world into a work-from-home scenario that only some were prepared for.
And despite the fact that there was already a trend toward working from home, the widespread necessity during COVID-19 has set off a firestorm of polarized speculation – will workers want to come back to the office once the restrictions are lifted? Will companies that experience success with remote working rethink how their business operates? Will employees begin demanding more work-from-home options?
Of course, we don’t know. But what is clear is that working from home during this period of social distancing is likely to have a fundamental impact on the future of work. Here are a few outcomes that may occur:
- Companies that made specific investments to make working from home more possible, comfortable, and accommodating for employees (such as purchasing standing desks or updating their VPN for widespread remote access) may institute more flexible work from home options in the future to capitalize on those initial efforts.
- Companies that successfully managed a remote work environment during COVID-19 will likely view working from home as more doable than they may have before the pandemic hit.
- Employees who were new to working from home during COVID-19 may discover benefits such as greater productivity and flexibility that influence their preferences for at-home work environments.
- Employees working from home during COVID-19 may find it lonely or tedious given the length of the quarantine, or simply not feasible for the type of work they do or their at-home setting.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have made the transition to remote working happen a lot sooner than the more gradual progression being predicted, but how companies across the country will react once COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted remains to be seen.
Easing the Transition Back to the Workplace Post-COVID-19
A big part of the transition back to an office setting once restrictions for social distancing are lifted will be whether employees feel safe after so many weeks of living through the pandemic. It is up to companies to help their employees feel like they can go back to work without exposing themselves to any health risks related to the COVID-19 virus.
There are a few key steps companies can take to make the workplace safe and welcoming after a return to work:
- Ensure the workplace has been recently cleaned and is ready for employees to safely return
- Provide employees with masks, cleaning solutions, and hand sanitizer to allow them to maintain control over their workspaces and personal health.
- Make adjustments to the office layout to ensure employees can maintain at least 6 feet between each other.
- Stagger any work-related activities that would normally require numerous people to be together in one room, such as large company meetings.
- Ensure your office space has effective air circulation, especially if windows cannot be opened to due weather or the office itself.
- Before reopening the office to employees, communicate frequently with them about plans to return to work and the office setting to ensure you answer their questions and instill confidence in the office atmosphere.
- Be understanding of employees who may not feel comfortable with returning to work, or may not be ready. Some larger companies should consider staggering employee returns so the office isn’t completely full at any point for a certain amount of time.
- Be mindful of employee health – encourage anyone with health concerns that begin after returning to work to immediately remain home.
What Working From Home During COVID-19 Has Taught Us
If your company is one that was able to transition to a remote working environment to weather the COVID-19 storm, you’ve likely faced challenges whether you were already allowing employees to work from home.
One thing every company has learned during this time is that allowing employees to work from home is vastly different from having to transition your entire business to a remote setup.
We also know that the transition back to the office once COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted will present its own challenges.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has also reinforced the importance of working together – we’ve seen this outcome everywhere, from live television shows that have moved to virtual mash-ups, to the heightened use of conferencing apps and video chats among friends and family.
With personal relationships and within work environments, social distancing has arguably led to a greater focus on communication and collaboration simply because those things take a bit more effort these days – and we hope to see these outcomes continue post-COVID-19.