Remote work is here to stay


As as most people believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is nearing its end, there is a global call for office workers to return to the office. The question is of course, whether companies will actually be able to turn back the clock to 2019 and reintroduce pre-pandemic work schedules. It appears that the pandemic has revolutionised the way we think about home office and remote work. The last two years have not only changed our understanding of workplace organisation, but they have provided eye-opening experiences with working from home for millions. Remote work became a coerced large-scale social experiment all of a sudden in 2020, and it was remarkably successful.

Prior to the pandemic, remote work was pioneered by the IT industry, which itself has been driving its development by delivering the required technological tools. High-speed Internet and video conferencing proved essential, as well as VoIP, cloud computing, encryption and secure networking that allow people to connect and communicate securely from remote locations. Before 2019, few industry sectors apart from the IT industry have had hands-on experience with remote work, hence, there were many prejudices. Management typically feared reduced productivity and loss of control, whereas employees worried about isolation, impeded communication and lack of social contact and feedback. It looked like things could easily go wrong and it looked like not everyone was well prepared.

Photo by Avi Richards

Working from home for two years during the pandemic has changed all that. Offices did not cease to function, on the contrary, the majority of organisations continued to operate with remarkable efficiency. In some places, new technologies were adopted overnight. Two years later, most office workers have a solid understanding of the advantages and challenges of remote work. They have devised procedures and techniques to address the latter. More importantly, many employees have developed an appreciation for the benefits of the home office, the increased autonomy and flexibility that comes with remote work. Work-life balance has taken on a new meaning. No more time-consuming commutes, no more noisy cubicles, fewer time restrictions, a comfortable work environment, and flexible schedules have brought significant personal improvements to the lives of office workers. Though not everyone favours it, the home office has become the choice for many who are now unwilling to go back to the old ways.

Evidently, the present call for returning to the office comes from management. It is important to understand that managers usually find it easier to control employees if they happen to be around. Walking up to somebody in the office and check on their work is a lot easier than doing this through electronic communication. This is especially true for a top-down management style that emphasises centralised decision making, limited delegation and micromanaging. There are also quite a few managers who simply do not trust their employees to execute tasks correctly if they are not being supervised. If you happen to work in such an environment, you might want to change jobs anyways. But even among the more enlightened managers, there is still a strong preference for onsite work. According to a recent BBC survey, 72% of all managers currently supervising remote teams prefer their teams to be onsite.

I think that we must ask ourselves whether it is reasonable for managers to demand that employees give up their newly found autonomy in order to make managements’ job easier. Certainly, many companies will insist on it, as they are legally entitled to. Traditional employment contracts typically contain a clause that lets employers mandate the place of performance. However, contracts can be cancelled and habits can be changed. It seems that we are now at a historic turning point. We must ask whether the traditional institution of the central office, is still a useful and up to date model for administrative collaboration. Managers are quick to point out its advantages. Among them are face-to-face interaction, rich communication, speed of response and decision time, as well as the opportunity to form meaningful social relationships. It is hard to deny these advantages. But do we need a traditional office to realise them? Or could they be realised just as easily by using informal nearby collaboration spaces if need arises?

There are already hundreds of companies with a fully remote workforce and their number is now growing at an accelerated pace. Unsurprisingly, most of these companies are in the technology sector. Healthcare, education, financial services and retail follow suit. Companies like GitLab, Appen, and Invision have pioneered the remote-first approach with their globally distributed workforce. They have learned lessons that are valuable to all corporations that are opening up to remote work. The management of a permanently remote workforce involves a mix of technologies and procedures which is quite different from what line managers in traditional offices are used to. Although remote work has been there for decades, it has only recently become mainstream and best practices for managing remote teams are still evolving. The pandemic has definitely expedited this development. More and more companies realise that a well-managed remote workforce offers a substantial competitive advantage and tremendous opportunities to both employer and employees.

If you are in a company that views remote work as a temporary emergency measure and now pushes for a return to pre-pandemic office hours, it is fair to say that your company hasn’t recognised the signs of the times. Perhaps it is then opportune to think things over and negotiate new arrangements. It is always worth a try. According to a recent Gartner study, 70% of home office workers, would like to continue working from home. Most companies are now quite open to the idea of hybrid work, or even to employing part of their workforce fully remote. Obviously, not all types of work are suitable for the home office, but typical office work most definitely is. That much we have learned during the past two years. Your autonomy is a big deal and having the power to decide place and/or time of performance enables you to realise life plans that weren’t previously possible as an employee. Apart from that, saving commutes and getting rid of unnecessary office space is good for the environment.

So, why wait? The pandemic-induced home office experiment has proven that remote work is here to stay. Now is the time to make changes. I must mention of course, that I am somewhat partial about remote work, since I am already working remotely for 25 years. This is basically as long as it became technically possible to do so. Furthermore, I am based in Thailand, several thousand kilometres away from my clients. Geographic independence is therefore quite important to me. I am convinced that remote work will become the norm in the near future. It is part of the emerging network economy that we currently see taking shape globally. A social key factor of the network economy is the empowerment of individuals and increased autonomy in the workplace is a fundamental part of that.