In March, “stay at home” orders led companies to fully switch to remote work. It was a worldwide shift of unprecedented proportions—and it’s unlikely to be the last. We’re yet to establish to what degree COVID-19 will alter the workplace for the long-term, but one thing is certain: work will never look the same.
Change for the long term
This isn’t the first crisis to force a shift to remote work. Teleworking kept companies going during Superstorm Sandy and 9/11. But in these cases, disruption was localized. Crises on a global scale present different issues, not least because systems weren’t designed to have every employee work remotely at once.
Although remote workers (full or at least part of the time) accounted for 43% of the US workforce pre-crisis, many companies have been cautious about jumping aboard the remote work bandwagon. While fully distributed companies (like us) are small in number, organizations with an existing remote culture and capability remain operational during the pandemic with relative ease.
How do we capitalize on what we’ve learned?
Crisis-driven change presents opportunities. While we’re not out of the woods, as we consider the safest way to reopen the country, what have we learned from this large scale test of remote work? And as savvy leaders put their new knowledge to good use, why is ‘remote’ likely to remain a key part of the mix?
- New mindsets.
At the outset of COVID-19, businesses transitioned to remote work because they had no choice. Not the ideal conditions to run any test. But now that employees have had a taste—no commute, fewer disruptions—they may not want to go back. Leaders who had doubts about remote work may have a change of heart, having experienced the benefits firsthand. The proverbial band-aid has been torn off. Also, leaders under pressure are learning to adopt an agile mindset. Instead of traditional top-down leadership, they now reinforce processes that help teams stay grounded and connected, pivot quickly when things don’t work out, and favor empowered teams that respond rapidly to change.
- Finally, funding!
This pandemic has reminded companies that they need to be flexible enough to make radical changes to day-to-day operations. As a result, more companies are investing in the technology needed to support remote work. Funding that perhaps seemed extravagant prior to the pandemic now looks like a prudent investment to keep their workforce safe and their organization nimble.
- Evolving technology.
Fast-changing tech is challenging the idea that in-office collaboration is the gold standard. Tools like Slack and Zoom enable live feeds and face-to-face communications—empowering businesses of all sizes to stay productive and connected. Distributed teams are particularly sensitive to breakdowns in communication and collaboration, so swift action and the right tech are essential. Certain industries like government, financial and legal services—anyone handling sensitive data—are now forced to find technology solutions that enable employees to work remotely.
- Global flexibility.
Prior to the pandemic, there was already a strong case in favor of remote working. Research from 2019 shows that 80% of job seekers would choose a job with flexible work options over one without. Recent events show that companies can work and communicate effectively across multiple time zones. It’s giving them renewed confidence in their ability to harvest the best talent—regardless of geography. For start-ups, targeting multiple markets from the outset is essential for survival. An agile global workforce gives them the reach they need to succeed.
Not everyone can work from home, as we’ve seen. And remote work isn’t without its challenges. Research suggests that people feel safer expressing ideas face-to-face, which some believe leads to higher performance levels in-office. Others argue that technology enables teams to feel more connected than ever. Certainly, there’s evidence to suggest that employees with remote working options are happier—and happy employees are productive employees.
Remote for the win
COVID-19 could prove a catalyst for a better way of working. The transition from office to remote was bumpy for many companies, but the learnings are invaluable. Since it’s no longer a matter of ‘if’ a global crisis arises but ‘when’, the companies who support remote work for the long-term—and encourage workers to develop the skills necessary to succeed remotely—will edge ahead.
by Andrew Upah