What role does remote work play in the future of work?
Will the revolutionary form of labor return to a luxury perk reserved for a fortunate few?
There’s no doubt that we are living through a period of intense disruption. Businesses across the globe have scrambled to adapt to the ongoing humanitarian and economic crises initially caused by the pandemic. Additionally, political turmoil has continued to both directly and tangentially impact business transactions across the globe.
With vaccines in production and a certain sense of stability slowly returning to life, the question that remains is how remote work will factor into the hotly debated concept of the “new normal.”
Will the revolutionary form of labor return to a luxury perk reserved for a fortunate few? Will it become a transcendent work option for all and sundry? Will it hover somewhere in between these two extremes? Or will we all be replaced by Asimovian robots within the next few years and the concept of remote work will be bunk?
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Remote Work as It Now Stands
Before digging into the potential futures of the remote work model, it’s helpful to recap just how the remote world has found itself in the modern limelight.
Remote work has been an option for decades now. As technology has adapted over time, the initial ability to “phone in” work from home shifted to one that included all sorts of online communication, as well. Cloud-based video conferencing software, workflow platforms, and countless other software solutions paved the way for an elite minority of workers to communicate and work from the comfort of their own personal workspaces.
Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and businesses of all kinds found themselves shifting their workforce online overnight. This urgency pushed the languishing remote work option to the forefront, exposing both its beauty and its blemishes for all to see.
The Pros and Cons of Remote Work
On the one hand, remote work has been hailed as a revolutionary approach to labor. The forward-thinking mindset embraces new technologies, frees up workers’ schedules, and is even good for the environment. Companies like Twitter and Shopify quickly hopped on the bandwagon early on in the crisis, going fully remote within months of the pandemic starting.
On the other hand, the need for so many individuals to work from home also revealed many flaws in the remote work system. For instance, remote workers had to learn how to negotiate for a variety of unexpected needs. This included remote-friendly equipment, virtual benefits, cybersecurity, and even basic things like accessibility to work documentation and dependable internet. Work-life balance turned out to be a fallacy for many, with two out of every three work-from-home employees reporting pressure to be continually available.
In many cases, these challenges could be overcome. Collaboration could be addressed with workflow platforms like Trello or Asana. HR departments adapted their recruitment and onboarding efforts by setting up online infrastructures that assessed remote organizational needs and set clear expectations in the hiring and training process.
Nevertheless, the flaws exposed for all to see opened up a debate over whether remote work was truly better than the traditional in-person option or if it was merely different.
The Remote Gig Economy
In addition to the debate over a virtual versus an in-person workforce, remote work has also introduced the question of whether full-time employees are needed in the first place. In many cases, the answer has proven to be a resounding no.
In fact, in 2019 before the pandemic had even started, 57 million U.S. workers already operated as part-time, independent freelancers. That’s a whopping 35% of the entire workforce. Many saw the gig economy as a way to escape the 9-to-5 grind and establish better work-life balance.
However, the freelance model has once again proven to have its flaws as well. For instance, the ups and downs of freelance work have significantly impacted the mental health of many younger workers. Additionally, the pressure of running an independent business, paying taxes, finding work, and generating enough income can once again make work-life balance difficult to achieve.
The Future of Remote Work
From remote or in-person debates to the question of full-time versus freelance workers, the remote work world has certainly challenged the status quo — particularly in recent years. The coronavirus pandemic threw down an even bigger gauntlet by forcing the workforce to collectively attempt to adapt to remote work all at once.
As the dust has settled from the initial experiment, it has begun to indicate just where remote work may be heading in the future. As things now stand, it appears that remote work in a post-pandemic world will continue to:
- Be a form of disruption that breaks traditions and spurs innovation.
- Evolve with technologies like 5G networks and cybersecurity.
- Be available to the highly educated and the well-paid — McKinsey & Company estimates that “the potential for remote work is highly concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations, and geographies.”
- Exist in a hybrid manner that encourages part-time remote work with occasional in-person activities.
- Be a necessary skill set for employees who want to demonstrate remote-friendly capabilities like communication, independence, initiative, and problem-solving.
- Remain available as a stopgap measure for future catastrophes.
Almost certainly, most remote work will continue to vary from one occupation, industry, or region to the next. While it’s not likely to be a uniform model of labor any time soon, it will just as certainly remain a mainstay option for many occupations.
The Maturation Process of Remote Work
Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield put it best when he explained that “we all know that work will never be the same, even if we don’t yet know all the ways in which it will be different.”
The truth is, remote work is far too alluring of an option for it to ever go away at this point. However, the way that remote work will be integrated into the average employee’s life remains an open question. The continual evolution of technology only complicates the potential ways that remote work can persist in the future, as well.
The coronavirus pandemic proved that a work from home option can be both extremely beneficial and utterly destructive depending on the circumstances. It will be interesting to see where remote work continues to fit into the picture as companies great and small begin to look to a post-pandemic future.