Work from home (WFH) has been a desirable perk offered by certain white-collar companies for years. Employees have pined for an increase in flexibility to their working situation for even longer, and WFH is the perfect embodiment of that. But for too long, WFH policies were relatively scant across corporate America. Managers didn’t trust workers not to faff around and waste tons of company time; more specifically, companies feared productivity would plummet without a centralized, in-person work environment. Regardless of the case studies and research showing workers were basically as productive at home as they were in an office, few companies embraced the concept in full force… until CoVid thrust upon the business community the largest forced experiment in remote worker in the history of the world.
The WFH landscape
Remote work has been around for decades, but in the 21st century, the advent of high-speed internet and video conferencing really changed the realm of what was possible for remote workers. The ability to communicate face to face from afar, attend meetings, etc. with your image and voice present made WFH a much more enticing proposition; your manager can see you and you can see the rest of your team. But even in situations where WFH was permitted, there has always been a stigma around workers who chose to do so because they couldn’t possibly be working as hard as those in the office. Even though data suggested that wasn’t true, the stigma remained — COVID changed all of that.
The COVID effect on WFH
It’s easy to understand conceptually why COVID changed all our thinking around WFH. Never before had so many companies been forced to go remote in such a short amount of time. All the previous small-scale tests and data was immediately put to the test, and in massive numbers. Every white-collar job that could go remote had to. New systems had to be spun up. Companies like Zoom and Slack that maybe only a few tech-savvy companies had heard of previously became so ubiquitous, their names became verbs (like Xerox before them).
For the most part, though, productivity remained similar to pre-pandemic levels. That’s obviously not true across the board (ask any parents tasked with homeschooling their children, keeping them wrangled, all while ostensibly working a full-time job).
RescueTime is a time management application that logs how workers spend their time on their respective computers. It provides meaningful insight into how workers are spending their time while WFH. The bottom-line finding via the company’s blog: “According to our data, knowledge workers, software developers, and IT professionals are all more productive when they work from home. This was true both at small and medium businesses and large companies (over 500 employees).”
WFH going forward
So what does that mean for the future of work? Well, it’s mixed. Many companies, specifically those based on teamwork and collaboration will find going back to the office a boon to creativity and output. Lots of people crave human connection a change of scenery and won’t want to be WFH permanently. However, COVID provided the proverbial petri dish to test completely new systems of working, and many workers feel vindicated that more flexible arrangements should be the norm.
I don’t imagine remote work across-the-board will become the new norm in a post-pandemic future. I do, however, expect more and more companies to embrace greater flexibility and choice among their workers. Employees have proven that most of them want to work and work well — they don’t need a boss staring over their shoulders to be productive. Companies could find significant cost savings via remote workers if the company is headquartered in a large, expensive city. The companies would require fewer square feet of office space, and they could pay workers a pro-rated salary based on the market the workers choose to live in (Facebook did this with workers who opted to go fully remote but moved out of the Bay Area).
The future of work may not be 100% remote, but if COVID has proven us one thing, it’s that greater work flexibility isn’t the productivity suck many of us expected. As such, I suspect significantly increased flexibility will be the new norm going forward.