COVID-19 Changing Perceptions Towards Remote Work
“I don’t think we’ll go back to the same way we used to operate.” – Jennifer Christie, Twitter
Make no mistake: recent headlines have been grim. But there is a silver lining.
We are already seeing businesses and employees work from home as part of our social distancing measures. The underlying long-term trend already points to more remote work, and the COVID-19 pandemic is only going to accelerate it.
But will it permanently alter our workplace? Is there going to be a clear before and after?
The Skepticism Towards Working From Home
While remote work has gained traction over the last decade, many large employers remain skeptical that employees working from home could actually get things done. A 2012 MIT study found that managers are less likely to describe home-based workers as ‘responsible’ or ‘dependable’, leading to lower performance reviews compared to those for office employees.
This stigma existed mostly in the subconscious until it was brought to light in 2013, when the Yahoo! CEO, Marissa Mayer, banned remote work by ordering all staff back to the office. “We often sacrifice speed and quality when we work from home,” Mayer explained her reasoning.
However, the results were disastrous in terms of attracting top talent from the labor market. Savvy businesses know that many people prefer to work from home, explains Jessica Malnik, a freelance copywriter for productized services. “Remote work allows you to open up your talent pool to anyone in the world. You are no longer limited by geography.”
Therefore, Mayer’s ban on remote work put Yahoo! in the backseat of the 21st century economy as Microsoft, Google, and Amazon charged ahead with the very same technologies that enable people to work remotely.
But this begs the question:
Why was there skepticism towards working from home in the first place?
Although technology made it easier for people to work from anywhere, managers have been slow to embrace it, thinking more work gets done at the office and face time improves team cohesion. Nico Appel at TightOps, a remote work consultancy, explains that “there is a lot of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and mostly false assumptions about the importance of where and how people get their work done. We could embrace the freedom made possible by technology, but that change is not easy for many.”
There is also a popular notion that the typical remote worker is a 1) millennial who pulled strings for a flexible work arrangement, 2) stay-at-home mom pulling in freelance income, or 3) someone at a startup. But you’d be surprised. According to Global Workforce Analytics, the typical remote worker is a senior manager over the age of 45, earns at least $58,000 per year, and works for a company with over 100 employees (CNBC, 2020).
Plus, not every job can be done remotely, and not every employee wants to work from home. Justin Cooke, the Founder of Empire Flippers who manages a fully remote team of 70 employees across four continents, says “not every employee is able to effectively perform remote work for a variety of reasons. While some of the stigma has fallen off in recent years, I don’t think it’s fair to say that remote work is some magical cure-all for improving both the health and efficiency of employees and teams.”
Some are justifiably concerned that if everyone worked remotely all the time, they might miss the benefits of face-to-face collaboration that only happens when everyone is in the same room, particularly in the creative industry (Adweek, 2020).
However, the year 2020 may well be an inflection point where remote work begins to dominate due to the ongoing pandemic.
Is COVID-19 Erasing the Stigma of Remote Work?
Due to COVID-19, many business leaders are now approaching remote work with an open mind—albeit with some caution. Noel Andrews, the CEO of JobRack, agrees that while some skepticism remains, things are changing fast. Although many organizations have not been able to imagine how certain tasks could be done from home, “COVID-19 is forcing them to give time and attention to solve these challenges as their workforce is, in many cases, mandated to stay home,” says Andrews.
“There is a grand experiment going on with the pandemic, where companies are forced to attempt remote work at scale. I believe this is a silver lining that will turbocharge the remote work movement.”
– Justin Cooke
Catalina Alvarez, the Community Manager at Dynamite Circle, also points out that it’s not just employees working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: “We’re already seeing schools and teachers transitioning to online classes. Gyms and trainers are offering at-home exercise programs. It’s only a matter of time for more companies to offer remote work if they want to stay in business.”
Companies with large physical offices may also find savings in rental space as more employees work from home. “This is an opportunity for companies to look at their expenses on physical space and real estate,” says Ronnie Teja, the Founder of Branzio Watches. However, these savings could be partially offset by increased spending on resources, laptops, and other equipment to support remote workers in their home offices.
On the flip side, many employees will realize that they could do everything in their day job at home instead of at the office. “I think a lot of people will start looking for home-based jobs going forward,” says Mads Singers, who runs a management consulting company with a distributed staff of 130 remote employees. “I see it as a two-way street that will actually consolidate, where a lot of small businesses in particular will look to save on office space as well.”
Now that many people have been forced to work remotely, how are their companies handling this sudden transition?
Ensuring Business Continuity in Disaster Scenarios
When companies are forced to transition to remote work en masse, they might have difficulties adjusting since this is new to many people(Adweek, 2020). Before making that transition, they must weigh the pros and cons of remote work: “It is critical that we discuss the benefits along with the drawbacks, so that companies can be clear-eyed in their decision making,” says Cooke.
Lindsay Jacobson of CNBC reports that companies including Twitter are urgently implementing business continuity plans that incorporate a work-from-home policy to help employees follow social distancing guidelines. However, while most companies have a plan for floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters—they are not prepared for a global pandemic resulting in a lockdown that may last weeks or even months.
As a result, they are scrambling into remote work without a plan to provide enough laptops for all employees, keep their networks secure, and make sure everyone does their jobs. Many challenges remain:
- Not all jobs can be done remotely.
- Not all companies have enough resources to accommodate all remote workers.
- Not all companies have identity and authentication policies prepared for secure remote access.
- Not everyone is fit for remote work due to distractions, lack of office space, or unavailability of broadband Internet at home.
Kate Lister, the President of Global Workforce Analytics, explains that “56 percent of the workforce holds a job that is at least partially compatible with remote work” (CNBC, 2020). That’s a lot of resources to provide for all these workers if they choose to go remote.
Yet, that leaves almost half of the workforce ineligible to work remotely, including teachers, healthcare providers, police officers, firefighters, and construction workers. However, Bill Wagner, the CEO of LogMeln—a remote access solution provider—offers a great idea to ‘flatten the curve’, saying that if most people eligible for remote work stays home, we reduce the risk of others catching COVID-19. “The emptying of offices and mass transit limits exposure for those who still need to go to the office,” says Wagner.
There are also network security concerns with rushing towards remote work without a proper cybersecurity policy in place. Matthew Knowland, an Operations Specialist, warns that “without proper planning and testing of [remote working] solutions, the action items hastily put into place can have terrible ramifications,” including cyberattacks, downtime, and loss of sensitive data resulting from insecure laptops being used at home.
Despite these challenges, there are companies who already have been running distributed teams successfully for several years.