What will happen to remote work after Covid-19?
Before the growth of Covid-19, remote work was a frequent topic of debate in the tech industry. Some people love it and can’t imagine themselves going back to the office. Others disliked it, saying that it harmed productivity and was socially isolating.
I’ve worked remotely since 2014 and enjoy it. I’m also building an intranet of sorts that helps remote teams stay connected; I believe that distributed work will become a new normal.
In many ways, Covid-19 accelerated this shift by 5+ years in a few weeks.
I recently had a chance to discuss this tectonic shift with Darren Murph, the Head of Remote at Gitlab (the world’s largest fully remote company), which you can see in the video below, but I wanted to outline in a bit more detail about what I see changing in the future.
First, a quick foundation for discussion
Before Covid-19, remote work was a tool that individuals with leverage could use to their advantage. For example, a great engineer could tell a potential employer that they’d like to work remotely. If the employer really needed to hire someone, they didn’t really have much of a choice, as the candidate set the terms.
In addition, forward thinking companies (Stripe, Zapier, Automattic, etc) recognized the benefits of being able to hire from anywhere. I wrote more about these trends before the coronavirus outbreak.
1.) Remote work polarization will persist
The most obvious prediction is that remote work polarization in this discussion will become more heated, as now everyone has an opinion.
Some people will say, “coronavirus proved that remote work is less productive”, completely ignoring the fact that many people were balancing several responsibilities at once, like parenting/educating their children while trying to balance FT work.
With that being said, it appears that coronavirus has accelerated the fact that people like the idea of a more flexible work arrangement (surprise, surprise).
Here’s some anecdotal Twitter polling to illustrate my point:
Three in five U.S. workers who have been doing their jobs from home during the coronavirus pandemic would prefer to continue to work remotely as much as possible, once public health restrictions are lifted. In contrast, 41% would prefer to return to their workplace or office to work, as they did before the crisis.
Do you see a trend here? These polls seem to indicate that approximately 40% of respondents would like to go back to the office, while ~60% would like to continue working remotely or explore it in a deeper capacity.
Just because people want a more flexible working arrangement doesn’t mean it will magically happen. To be fair, many people wanted to work remotely before the Covid-19 outbreak happened.
This brings me to my next point.
2.) Remote as cost-cutting
The current economic state is forcing companies to reduce expenses. Right now, this is primarily reflected in headcount reductions (unfortunately), but there are more changes on the way.
A recent Gartner study indicates that the notion of remote work is shifting from a nice-to-have (or a competitive advantage for forward-thinking companies) to a must-have. Their research indicates that 74% of CFOs will move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID 19.
This signals a major shift in how people perceive the benefits of remote work, especially from the C-Suite.
It seems that this cost-cutting directly correlates to fixed expenses like the office, which brings me to my next point.
3.) The office will change
We should expect the office of the future to change, similarly to how flying changed after 9/11 with the introduction of the TSA and other security measures.
Currently, the open-office floor plan is one of the most prevalent design patterns, which is essentially a giant petri dish as people are stuffed like sardines next to one another. In a recent New York Times article, the following quote stood out to me:
To create a six-food radius around each employee, companies may have to pull desks apart or stagger employees so they are not facing one another.
The article goes on to discuss a variety of ideas based around the simple premise of providing people more space to work. Put another way, the cost of office space would grow significantly if there aren’t headcount reductions.
This seems crazy.
In a time of economic uncertainty, I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that companies will increase their spend on the office. If anything, they will look to decrease their expenses.
I fully expect some individuals will also feel uncomfortable going into the office as well. I don’t expect major repercussions for these people, at least in the next few months.
4.) People may leave cities
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had numerous calls with people who typically live in major metros like SF, NYC, etc. Where are they right now?
Outside of the city.
I want to be clear — these are the lucky people who have a place to go (family, friends, vacation home, etc), but many people left these cities as quickly as they could. Now, they are in a more remote part of the country or a second-tier city.
For example, I live in Maine (also known as Vacationland) and we’re seeing articles like this in the newspaper:
I’m sure many will be excited to return to the city as the virus winds down (whenever that is), but it’s reasonable to expect that some percentage of people will take action on the following thoughts:
- “Being out here isn’t as bad as I thought”
- “I could save a ton of money on rent and the cost of living here”
- “Work just reduced my salary by 10%, my money goes further out here”
- “It would be nice to be closer to my family out here”
A major value proposition of a major city is the crowd. The crowd creates a network effect, which means there’s more opportunity and culture. What happens when the crowd/density is perceived as a negative and a risk to well-being?
I’m not arguing for a massive disruption to cities, but there’s a possibility that this event provides a perfect excuse for a lifestyle change for a small percentage of the population.
5.) Work will become more flexible & asynchronous
Leading distributed companies have written about the evolution that happens as people work remotely over time.
In short, communication continues to become more and more asynchronous the longer your team works remotely. The more you lean into remote work, the more you realize that real-time conversations create potential bottlenecks to getting work done.
This is why I’m vocal about virtual office software being “candy” for remote workers. This is an attempt to create the feel of a subpar working environment instead of leaning into what makes remote work great, which is flexibility. Flexibility happens when you don’t need to all be working at the same time.
If you want to see how work will change, use the frameworks mentioned above as your guide. At Friday, we’re building tools to help share regular updates asynchronously, so you can spend less time in meetings.
6.) The work/life bubble has popped
After working remotely for several years, I was on an important video call and said something I haven’t said before:
“Hey, really sorry if I’m a bit all over the place. My 18-month old son is downstairs screaming like a crazy person.”
For those who are interested, my son was safe with his mother, but it was still wildly distracting as I tried to answer questions on a call.
The reality is that people are trying to balance work and family at the same time. The bubble has popped. Faking it isn’t working so well these days.
I’m not advocating for being unprofessional when working from home, but there’s a shared experience which helps people be a bit more empathetic.
7.) People will seek meaningful connection outside the office
Many people who dislike remote work say that it’s socially isolating. By default, remote work is socially isolating. But it can also be liberating, as it gives you the opportunity to get to know people in your local community.
You just need to get out of the house.
As more and more communication happens online via social media, people are craving offline social interaction more than ever. In many ways, the office has functioned as a crutch for IRL human interaction for far too long.
With the office being removed as a social forcing function, I think many people are being forced to reconsider their social life and it leaves a lot to be desired.
Do I know my neighbors? Am I involved in my community? Why am I missing out on my kids growing up? Why do I sit in a car for two hours a day?
This feels like a tectonic shift and it’s difficult to project and predict what will happen next. All I know is that the future of work is here, whether we like it or not.