In the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it has become evident that the concept of remote work is something we have to explore on a global scale. Not only to better prepare the world for other international pandemics but also to brace ourselves for an innovation-driven future with increased automation where artificial intelligence and robots will effectively eliminate the need for certain jobs.
There is no denying that telecommuting is here to stay. The number of remote workers in the United States increased by well over 110% between 2005 and 2015. Furthermore, between 2016 and 2017, we saw a 7.9% increase in remote workers in the United States, and that trend is set to continue in the aftermath of COVID-19.
The question is if we're ready for a remote future and if the concept of telecommuting is as ideal as it's being promoted by some. Do we even understand the context of what a remote future would mean for society as we know it?
The advantages of remote jobs are clear
The introduction of a larger remote workforce may benefit both employers and employees, with clear advantages for both parties in this equation. Besides obvious advantages, such as lower overhead expenses, companies that promote remote work can create teams where skills are preferred over employees' geographical location, which improves the company's ability to produce a higher quality service or product for the intended customer.
Remote employees, on the other hand, can gain flexibility and increase their productivity while also lowering transportation costs. Likewise, not having to report to an office or commute to work, frees up time that can be used to pursue other goals, effectively increasing employees' sense of empowerment, even giving them a chance to see their work in a new light.
As a result of these benefits, a new subculture of remote professionals has emerged. They call themselves "digital nomads" – people working in various locations independently. In many ways, these digital nomads represent the epitome of remote workers. But they also represent a minority in the field and are not representative of how most of us have had to deal with remote work during the ongoing pandemic.
Yet these digital nomads deserve some recognition and should be viewed as an inspiration to all of us of how to optimize remote work and live every day with the purpose of doing exactly what we want on our own terms. Consider digital nomads as one end of the spectrum of remote work with the opposite end of the spectrum populated by those who are forced to work from home, even though they thrive in a social and busy office.
The biggest hurdles facing business owners
Lack of innovative technology
While solutions offered by Slack, Trello, Skype, Zoom and Google Drive are making the transition to remote work easier by connecting employees and their work online, more innovation is needed to take the concept to the next level. For remote work to reach global adaptation, it has to be more efficient than non-remote work, and, so far, technology is capping much of that development. If it weren't for COVID-19, most of us would still not be familiar with Zoom and Google Meet.
Insufficient means of communication
The lack of adequate technology is only a part of a much bigger issue. A tough challenge is ensuring that employees feel informed and connected to their work. This is especially true during a pandemic, where people are forced to work from home. Many workers struggle to connect to their job when working remotely, and for others, it is virtually impossible to find a productive work routine at home.
To help them transition, companies could have a constant flow of communication with remote employees without being intrusive. They could check in via software to see how they are doing and ask whether they are having any problems. They also could make sure their IT staff go to employees' houses and make sure everything is set up correctly, in a good working environment, and that it is paid for by the company.
Therefore, besides the aforementioned tools that help optimize the workflow and eliminate certain inefficiencies, organizations have to find ways to encourage a positive company culture among workers in different locations. One solution to this is to go remote partially. Employees would mainly work remotely but would work under the same roof a few days a month to promote a team spirit.
Companies could still have things like picnics, parties and celebrations that promote culture. Those celebrations could be virtual or you could bring people together. If they are not in the same country, you could hold a virtual conference.
Working remotely also puts increased responsibility on the employees who have to optimize the way they work and become efficient at solving new problems. For example, most offices today have an IT department that makes sure that computers and other technology work as intended. When working from home, that responsibility falls on each employee respectively.
Naturally, that employee will need access to the tools and services needed to run maintenance on the necessary technology, and some might even argue that additional compensation needs to be offered for extra work done outside one's normal tasks. Employees also have to take on overhead expenses, such as increased electricity usage, printer paper and office supplies.
Many businesses are resisting remote work because of the need to reorganize the way they operate. Many fear that a reorganization will hurt the foundation on which their company is built and, therefore, they'll never try it. The potential risk of change is just too great that without people trailblazing before them, they'll never embrace a new future.
Others are concerned that employees will underperform when not closely monitored, highlighting the need for innovative tools to track productivity. This is a problem when children and family life interrupt your daily work routine. There is no clear solution to most of these issues. And even though a lot of research is being conducted on the topic, we can't expect an extensive adaptation of remote jobs until there is a tried-and-tested, dynamic process for the transition.
Employees, on the other hand, have to deal with work/life balance issues. Before, they could go to work and have a break from family life. But since COVID-19 started, everyone is at home – husbands, wives and children. They are feeling pressured to work late into the evening. This is affecting their health and mental stability. They are more stressed and have not found a good balance, one they had previously. This issue also must be addressed before a fully remote society can perform well.
What does a remote future look like?
The answer is most likely that we'll never see a completely remote future, even among innovative companies in tech and other remote-friendly sectors. Instead, a more reasonable forecast is a good balance where a healthy company culture is prioritized by enabling those who can and want to work remotely while others are allowed to continue working more traditionally.
We also have to consider that certain jobs are better suited for a remote future. Software developers, content creators, SEO experts, accountants and other jobs where productivity is easily monitored, are already leading the pack. Whereas jobs that require nonverbal communication and physical involvement may never become fully remote.
In sectors where telecommuting isn't optimal, a combination of remote and in-house work will likely prove to be the most fruitful. For example, business owners might consider allowing employees to work from home for a set number of days each month while still conducting team-focused exercises on a regular basis. For better or worse, COVID-19 has helped us prepare for the future.
Large companies have to change their idea of an office. The days of working for a Fortune 500 company in a cubicle until 5 p.m. or later are gone. Companies have to be flexible, but they shouldn't cut off their employees without help. They could ask employees to telework but require them to visit the office at least once a week for a staff meeting.
People need that interaction, but they don't want to stay in the office all day. Offer ways for your employees to connect and interact with others while still enjoying the freedom to work from anywhere. People need structure but a flexible one.