Coronavirus has made remote working a reality for millions
Remote working as a percentage of the workforce has been steadily creeping upwards over the past couple of decades. Technology, changes in the way we do business and shifting expectations among younger workers have all contributed. What's happened over the past couple of weeks has suddenly made remote working less of a trickle and more of a flood.
Companies are now having to adapt to new ways of working as a necessity while vast swathes of the global economy temporarily shut down. Whereas previously around 1 in 4 companies in most advanced economies allowed their workers to work from home, it's now the majority.
Will this permanently change how we work?
Tech gurus, digital nomads and freelancers of every stripe have long trumpeted the advantages of home working. They argue it increases productivity and personal happiness. Yet studies of office workers repeatedly find that most employees enjoy going into work on a daily basis, citing the routine and sense of camaraderie. In companies where home working is possible, only a minority of staff tend to take advantage of it without some sort of lead from management.
The sudden dramatic changes to our working lives we have been experiencing have been called a 'constructive upheaval'. The ability of businesses to survive the severe economic shock of a global shutdown will depend on how much they're able to adapt to the new reality.
The same applies to individual workers. Some will thrive at homeworking perhaps having never contemplated it before. For some it might be something they've lobbied for previously but have faced reluctance from their employers. Individuals and companies who had previously found it hard to see how remote working was possible for them will now see it is infinitely possible.
A lasting reality?
None of us know how long the particular shut down will last. It has been suggested stricter shutdowns will alternate with looser restrictions for some time as the virus spikes and then eases. But will a vaccine send us all back to business as usual? It seems unlikely. It is expected that many companies will learn from what's just happened and start planning for change and better ways of adapting.
Companies will need to look at their resilience to future shocks. Also, the data might confirm what those tech gurus have been arguing for years. Productivity might increase during the periods of enforced home working. If so, you can expect more companies to embrace it and more workers to demand it.
A hybrid world of work
Many people work not only for career satisfaction and the monetary rewards but also for the friendship and sense of community it brings. It's one reason for the popularity of co-working spaces for freelancers. For some of the week freelancers may choose to rent a desk in a shared workspace with other freelancers. There they'll meet new people, tell jokes over the water cooler and network.
This might offer a model for the future of work. For some of the week you report to the office, the rest of the week you work from home. It's a model of working that will adapt better to enforced shocks like the current one.
The future will be different
Some of the changes we're seeing in terms of how we live our lives, how government operates and the ways we work are unprecedented. It's perhaps naïve to think that everything will go immediately back to how it once was. The future will be different even if it's not yet entirely clear just how different.