Obviously the Future: Remote Work is Here to Stay.
I know I was not the only one who met the Pfizer vaccine announcement with mixed emotions. Excited for a path forward to address the pandemic? Of course. But a small part of me empathized with this:
Long before Covid-19, employer and employee alike faced two realities:
First, commuting is terrible. Traveling from home to the office is an expensive, inefficient use of time, and it makes people unhappy and resentful. Having to arrive at an office in a presentable state at an early hour, particularly when that's all tangential to the outcome one is responsible for, feels like an intrusion.
Second, high-quality talent is scarce, expensive, and often both. The most talented workers have options. Increasingly, talent values flexibility and the freedom to choose how to direct their time for the maximum output. Time and attention are valuable. This continues to bifurcate the workforce. Jobs that don't require the best, most differentiated talent may prefer to opt for the lowest cost. As entities who have led the trend in offshoring show, that might objective might be best served by looking globally - or at least outside expensive, high tax urban centers.
In a week, borders closed, offices disbanded, and travel ceased. For most knowledge economy workers, this meant one thing: make remote work from home feasible. And, as time has progressed, remote work has gone from merely possible to often advantageous. Organizations that flourished turned remote work into an opportunity and achieved what everyone aspires for: better outcomes for less cost.
Why is now the inflection point for remote work?
Aside from the Covid-19 catalyst, the access to fast-internet and globalization have made the world more flat. Increasingly, a global technology and business culture exist that allows working across borders, time zones, and origin cultures to be a matter of trade-offs and preferences, not serious constraints. Additionally, instant, internet-enabled solutions have emerged to solve pain points associated with remote work: online communities, online networking, online knowledge management; and virtual conferences, virtual board meetings, virtual pitch sessions. These have proven possible today and are only going to become more effective moving forward.
What makes me convinced of the benefits of remote work?
First, I've done it. Delivery Associates (the company that I co-founded) is a remote-first organization. We've operated that way since we launched over seven years ago. It has worked brilliantly for us. We have team members all over the globe and in over 15 US cities. When a client needs you, travel doesn't seem so bad. Remote doesn't always mean work from home, and not everything has to be remote. Pre-Covid, we had solved for co-working spaces in their home cities; we had an annual global summit and regular get-togethers for project work. I benefited, though, from the freedom this enabled, and this was a distinct part of our value proposition to hires.
Second, a recent Deutsche Bank report shows that employees increasingly believe they will work fewer days in the office. See below.
Third, the cost savings on travel and office space are incredible. This translates into higher profits and greater savings for employees who no longer have to pay the costs of commuting. According to Global Workplace Analytics, "a typical employer can save about $11,000 year for every person who works remotely half of the time."
Forth, remote work fosters innovation just fine. Studies of academic research and co-inventors on patents show an increasing trend of collaborators across broad geographic and institution spreads (see The Case for Remote Work below).
How's it going to play out?
Companies able to employ at least some of their workforce remotely will be most competitive on costs and more likely to recruit and retain top talent. Some companies will be rebuilt (or built from the start) to be entirely remote. They will need to rethink and reimagine new solutions to every piece of talent management and HR practices.
Maintaining company culture is often cited as the biggest concern.
Company culture is the most amorphous yet impactful element of the modern workplace. 'Culture eats strategy for breakfast' we are told. But if you believe that 'what you do is who you are', as inscribed in Ben Horowitz's recent book, then the way remote work is built into a company can be a vital lever for optimizing culture. Company culture will be reinforced and disseminated through the software and SaaS choices. It happens with how decisions are made and what the expected span of responsibility is for those decisions.
The more digital native the team is, the easier it will be to adapt to online and remote work culture. The more the roles and responsibilities are aligned and incentivized toward producing outcomes and output, the more likely they will be easier to reinforce through remote work.
If what you do is how you are, what are some examples of companies that innovating solutions?
"Future of Work" is an entire field of startup/venture innovations at the forefront of HR tools for a remote-first world:
- Market map here from Bessemer
- Payroll for a global workforce, including Remote and Deel, who each recently raised large rounds
- Learning and Development tools and online systems. So many.
- Recruiting, applicant tracking, and onboarding. Verticalized job boards and networks and software to automate onboarding like Edify.
How people communicate:
- Incumbents: Once Microsoft Teams, now more Zoom, Slack, and all of the cloud-enabled services that have surged in popularity and revenue during the pandemic.
- AR/VR: Spatial and Oculus look towards a future where you can meet in 3D.
Where people physically live and work:
- People will reorient their living situations to find a remote balance that works for them. I won't comment now on the trends in various real estate markets, except to say that remote work is clearly a catalyst for individuals and businesses re-evaluating their space choices and making changes.
- Redfin and Zillow have seen spikes in buying and selling residential real estate. Particularly those looking to expand to larger homes with more space.
- Smart countries and jurisdictions will make it easy for 'digital migrants' to live. Greece is offering a 50% tax break.
- Rise of second homes, small homes, pre-fab homes - a combination of all three.
What are the biggest risks that might slow the trend?:
- Unclear regulatory environments add cost and confusion on things like local taxes, employee protections, etc.
- Lack of imagination of managers and company leadership may slow the adoption and some may seek to revert to old norms
- Escapism. Some people use work as an escape from frustrations in their personal life. Getting the personal and professional optimized takes thought and work.
Conclusion: Work is never going to be the same.
Normalizing remote work may be one of the biggest gains to society coming out of Covid-19. It's a clear part of my current and future standard operating procedures. The biggest driver is the unquantifiable element of joy that comes from increased freedom.
Future of professional services:
From 'I took a flight every evening' pre-Covid drudgery...
...to 'I crushed several client engagements this week at home' joy.