Almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, myths about remote work are being disproven

In February 2013, Yahoo’s CEO at the time, Marissa Mayer, infamously proclaimed that their employees would no longer be allowed to work remotely. Around the same time, Google’s CFO at the time, Patrick Pichette, also declared that teleworking was no good. They were far from the only business leaders that at best misunderstood and at worst scapegoated remote employees.

As an advocate for remote working – and a remote worker myself for almost two decades – it had constantly been an uphill battle getting organizations to understand and prioritize the benefits of a hybrid workstyle. The traditional business community spent a lot of energy demonizing remote workers as an excuse to cover-up other problems like rudderless teams and sluggish businesses. This view was not only incorrect, it exacerbated any real problems that may have existed in those organizations.

The common excuse that most of the remote working nay-sayers gave to justify their positions was that bringing people into the same space caused some “magic” to happen from the impromptu collisions and connections. Bumping into a colleague in a meeting or at the water cooler was supposed to be the genesis of this magic interaction. I honestly have never understood people’s acceptance of this organizational model… as if we all worked in a 1950’s small business. Yes, if you were employed at a local retail store, then you may gain an advantage having all your co-workers in the same place all the time. Realistically, I and many knowledge workers haven’t worked in an office where everyone was in the same location, same city, or even the same country for over two decades. What good is in-person, impromptu “magic” when your colleagues are rarely in the same building with you? Clearly, successful distributed workforces need to be able to develop that so-called “magic” using collaboration tools to truly be effective – and, when those tools are present on a computer or mobile device, it’s just as clear that that knowledge worker can be anywhere where they can access those tools and a solid internet connection.

That all brings us to today. A deadly pandemic has swept over the globe, forcing just about all knowledge workers to work remotely. It was the fear of infection and/or the requirement to stay home that overcame the stigma and scapegoating of remote working. We’ve learned a great deal about the remote and hybrid working model since this ordeal began.

  • The past studies on remote workers were correct. Remote workers are generally more productive than in-office workers. Two plus hour daily commutes were eliminated, and most of that time went back into worker productivity. The dedication to tasks has been so great that people have risked burn-out due to over-focusing (something we never would have learned if the “lazy remote worker” stigma still existed).
  • Traveling to a central office to do individual work clearly no longer makes any sense. This will force the focus of an organization’s offices to shift from housing individual work to facilitating group work – brainstorming, white-boarding, celebrating, etc.  This will require fewer desks, more meeting spaces, and more technology to support the large numbers of remote workers that will be participating in the meetings.
  • Once it’s safe again, traveling for business will start up again, but it will only happen when actually needed. Visiting a client site, joining a planning session, attending a business conference, etc. will all be legitimate reasons to travel. A rote, daily commute to a desk that may or may not be as well-equipped as the one we have at home no longer makes sense – due to the time lost, cost, and carbon emissions spent.
  • The role and schedule of the knowledge worker will change. Employees will be judged based upon their output, not the hours they spend at a desk or in an office. The freedom to adopt personal workstyles will be liberating. Good workers will no longer have qualms about attending a child’s school meeting or taking a day off for a leisure activity, as they will no longer have Neanderthal supervisors counting their butt-in-seat time as productivity. This will require supervisors to have the needed skills for managing remote teams – skills that have always existed (for 24-hour shifts and global teams) but have not in the majority of enterprise supervisors’ repertories.
  • We’ve also learned about the drawbacks of remote working. These include the need to have a separate location in one’s residence to go to for optimal work; the need to build-in employee social and team-culture events and meetings (and breaks) as they don’t happen organically; and the need to ensure our technology is up for the tasks required. Yes, having a tablet with an embedded camera and earbuds worked in a pinch when we had to stay home for a day here or there, but working remotely for the long-haul requires a solid internet connection that supports everyone in your home simultaneously; high-quality, appropriately sized and mounted displays to prevent eyestrain; a high-quality camera, headset or speaker-mic device, lighting to ensure you look and sound your best to clients and colleagues, and a collaboration platform that supports scheduled and impromptu communication.

Our society and culture will change as a result of what we’ve learned during the pandemic. Organizations will likely have smaller offices in the future, but they’ll have more of them and they will be in a more dispersed model. People will likely choose where they live based on new criteria. One no longer needs to live “a reasonable commute time” to an office, but instead can pick areas that meet higher priority criteria – perhaps near family… or, where the action is as quiet or exciting as they prefer… or, where the schools or communities meet their needs. Restaurants that had a business model of feeding the hordes of office workers at lunch will probably never open again, but new restaurants that support a more spread-out population will open and flourish. Most importantly, enterprises will have the ability to hire the best and brightest workers regardless of geography. Working remotely will not be ideal for every role and every personality, but the percentage of knowledge workers will surely flip from mostly in-offices to mostly remote. The quality of life benefits for employees and the tremendous cost saving for organizations will surely never be forced back into the genie-bottle.

As a result, I believe the hybrid working model will be the default for many years to come. It enables knowledge workers to be productive from home, from an office, and when traveling. Selecting the right tools and the right platforms to achieve this will be a critical component of an organization’s success. As always, if you need advice on where to begin this journey, always feel free to reach out to me.

It’s difficult to realize that you’re living through a time of fundamental change in real-time. When we look back at this era in five or so years we’ll likely all be able to recognize how the awful circumstances allowed us to overcome the incorrect stigmas associated with the remote worker, and enable a more productive and happier future for knowledge workers.