The sudden pandemic-driven rush to remote work in 2020 was an unprecedented experiment. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.
The rise of remote work is arguably the biggest change in how we work since the introduction of the networked PC. Yet so many unknowns remain.
When will pandemic-mandated remote work end? We don’t know.
What percentage of those now working from home will return to office work? We don’t know.
But we have learned a great many things about not only remote work, but office work, too — and the whole way business has been conducted in the past few decades. Because of what we’ve learned, business will function far better in the future.
Here are the eight ways remote work improved business by teaching us how to work together better:
1. Team, project and task management tools are better than MBWA
It’s astonishing that in the 21st Century, most managers, department heads, team leaders, and project leaders still practice MBWA (management by wandering around) — gauging employee productivity by, in part, looking at people to see if they appear to be working.
Just one problem: With knowledge work, anyone sitting at a computer appears to be working, even if they’re shopping on Amazon or posting cat photos on Facebook. Anyone staring out the window appears to be slacking off, even if they’re deep in thought coming up with the next million-dollar idea for your company.
Some companies are experimenting with new MBWA technology from companies like iMonitorSoft and EfficientLab — using cameras, keystroke loggers and software that captures desktop screens to make sure people are focused on tasks. This is no recipe for retaining top talent in most cases. People don’t want their companies surveilling their homes and families, and many feel strongly enough about it to seek employment elsewhere. And remote worker surveillance tools are easily defeated.
The post-pandemic intuition is correct: It’s better to focus on work delivered rather than observational guessing. Products like Asana, Basecamp, Trello, Jira, Podio, Taskworld, Monday.com and others combine team and individual task monitoring focused on time to completion, rather than “are they typing a lot.”
2. Zero trust is indispensable for security
The unplanned rush to remote work at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic last year radically expanded the attack surface for organizations worldwide. Specifically, home offices tend to involve many applications on many devices used by many users (family members and guests) all accessing the same network, sometimes sharing devices.
The zero-trust security model is a conspicuously good idea under these circumstances. (Zero trust is an architecture in which every device, application and user must be individually verified and authorized based on the resource being accessed.)
What’s also true is that zero trust is necessary now in offices, even those with strong perimeter defenses and good physical security. It took widespread remote work to make that clear.
3. Living in an expensive city to gain access to a high-paying job is wasteful
One reason knowledge workers move to big cities is that, historically, that’s where the high-paying jobs are. And the cost of living is much higher on average in cities with high-paying jobs. This is especially acute in Silicon Valley, where a family earning 200k lives a middle-class lifestyle because their ordinary tract house costs $1.2 million and food, gas, clothes, insurance, and all the rest cost more than they do out in the country.
What makes more sense for everybody is for employees to live wherever they want, and for companies to pay less.
It’s a point of controversy, because some commentators say workers shouldn’t be “penalized” for remote work. And that’s true if remote work is part time and employees still need to be within driving distance of headquarters. But if people can live anywhere — in the suburbs, in small rural towns, in remote forests or, say, Costa Rica — and still do their jobs, the wasteful chain of events where employees live expensively so they can afford higher salaries that are necessary because they live expensively, etc., can be broken at long last.
4. Remote work communication tools are better for office work, too
We realized during the pandemic that basing all meetings on in-person gatherings wasn’t really ideal. Many of those meetings advantaged those in the room, with anyone on the speakerphone treated like a second class citizen, an afterthought, or a burden to the meeting.
Video meetings using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, BigBlueButton, BlueJeans, Whereby, GoToMeeting, Cisco WebEx, Google Meet, and others put everyone on an equal footing in terms of both participation and when sharing slides, documents, charts and other content.
In the future, whether work is remote, in-house or, more likely, hybrid, the meeting tools the pandemic forced us to use will improve meetings going forward, now that we’re all used to them.
5. Remote work is greener than office work
A new study by Alliance Virtual Offices found that, on average, each employee reduces their annual carbon footprint by roughly 1,800 pounds by working from home. Multiplied by the number of remote employees, allowing remote work is one of the most powerful ways for companies to contribute to the reduction in greenhouse gasses.
6. Office work is inefficient.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that some remote workers took advantage of the situation by getting a second remote job, working two jobs with each employer believing they were working only one. (The “situation” I’m referring to is the existence of remote work without the performance management systems necessary to assure productivity.) “Many say they don’t work more than 40 hours a week for both jobs combined,” the article said.
To the extent that this is true and widespread enough to qualify as a trend, it reveals gross inefficiencies in how work is managed and measured. It also reminds us how much non-productive time is spent by employees getting ready for work and commuting each way. The Alliance Virtual Offices study found that employees in New York gained back 15.2% of their time by not commuting.
7. Most business travel is needless and expensive
With the lockdown remote work phenomenon, business travel took a hit. Organizations around the world realized that major savings could be realized when most business travel is replaced by Zoom calls and other internet-facilitated interactions.
While the big reduction in business travel from the pandemic isn’t directly associated with remote work after the pandemic, it’s the tools that became mainstream — especially the newfound usefulness and habit of video meetings — that have proved they can replace at least some business travel.
8. Hybrid work is better than either remote work or office work.
The truth is that some people have personalities or work styles that favor in-person collaboration. Other personalities crave the control and isolation of remote work. Each type thrives in one scenario more than the other.
The opportunity here is for hybrid work environments, where the extroverts can gather in the office and the introverts can work remotely.
All can use the new range of remote work tools. Right-sizing work location optimizes performance, improves staff retention and happiness and improves the competitiveness of the organization.
The bottom line is that we don’t know exactly how remote work trends will ultimately pan out. But we do know that the knowledge we’ve gained by rushing to remote work will dramatically improve how business is done in the future.