COVID-19 did not create the need for a shift to remote work, it accelerated a trend that has been building for some time and highlighted for business leaders the path to the so-called Future of Work.
By Bill Wagner
Many businesses are still leading with the “wait it out and see what happens” mentality, but as leaders, we need to realize we are not going back. In fact, according to a new Pew Research survey, 22% of U.S. adults either changed residence due to the pandemic or know someone who did. And the same study stated that 20.6% of major city residents are planning to move beyond normal commuting distances, and over half want to relocate over two hours away or more from their current location, indicating they expect remote work to be a permanent option for them in the long term. This all goes to show businesses that we need to evolve from tolerating remote work to fully embracing it. If we don’t make remote work part of the collective modern workforce, we won’t be able to sustain business and economic resilience long term, and when the next big disruption hits, what progress will we have made? Our ability to stand up and support a permanent remote workforce is necessary across most industries and sectors – although we’ll see varying degrees of implementation depending on circumstantial factors – if businesses and the economy are to sustain the impact of another pandemic-like event.
Remote Work Will Have Significant Societal and Infrastructure Implications
A shift to remote work impacts infrastructure and how cities redefine and prioritize their investments for areas such as road maintenance, public transportation with fewer commuters or a reduced demand for commercial real estate in downtown locations. It’s critical that governments re-examine the focus of their capital plans, including potentially shifting dollars away from highways and even public transportation projects and instead focus on increasing the availability of high-speed broadband and upgrading power grids to better facilitate remote work. In addition to reducing the impact on our roads, remote work can also have a positive impact on our society. The average commute for Americas is 27 minutes, or nine days a year. Those nine days can instead be spent with family or friends, learning new skills, or even putting in a little extra work each day ultimately making the business more successful. To put this in perspective, even a small 100-person organization could see an average of an additional 45 combined people hours every day by allowing remote work. This moment could be the impetus for significant change in how our society works, learns and communicates, and these changes will require a broader reset in where and how we invest time and resources.
The “Next Normal” Will Have a Bigger Focus on Sustainability
Following the initial impact of COVID-19, organizations were focused on business continuity, employee welfare and productivity, but as we look towards the “next normal” we’ll start to see the pandemic accelerate sustainability efforts in the same way it has remote work. An increase in remote work has the potential for some real societal benefits, including improving air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and even reducing waste production as more people make coffee and lunches at home. If remote capable jobs would transition to remote even just 50% of the time, we would eliminate 54 million tons of greenhouse gas. We can expect to see more global corporations, investors and business leaders intensifying their sustainability efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and promote greater sustainability in a meaningful and measurable way. This will go beyond just making office spaces more environmentally friendly, now necessitating taking a critical look at how to support renewable energy efforts with employees through education, training and empowering employees to build sustainable practices — whether at home or in office.
Businesses That Fail to Permanently Embrace Remote-Centric Work Post-COVID Will Suffer a Competitive Disadvantage
COVID-19 did not create the need for a shift to remote work, it accelerated a trend that has been building for some time and highlighted for business leaders the path to the so-called Future of Work. More than just a quick fix trend, remote work as a long-term strategy has the potential to provide greater business resilience to external forces of disruption, enable employees to do their best work with more flexibility, open the aperture to a broader and more diverse talent pool, and enable businesses to promote greater sustainability in a meaningful and measurable way. In fact, research shows that the average US employee would save 200 hours each year if they did not have to commute. That’s 200 more hours for family time, exercise, sleep, vacations and yes, work. Not only does remote work give more time back for higher value or more rewarding tasks, but it greatly expands who and where you can hire. Hiring managers are no longer tethered to a small radius near an office location and can instead hire the best person for the job regardless of location. A more diverse workforce is ultimately more representative of your customer base and therefore leads to the creation of better products that work for more people. Employers will struggle to compete for talent in a world where so many organizations encourage remote work and provide a mature support structure for remote employees. Business leaders that opt not to embrace remote work post-pandemic as part of their larger business strategy will be putting themselves at a serious competitive disadvantage.
(The author is President and Chief Executive Officer at LogMeIn. Views expressed are personal.)