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The Acceleration of Remote Working in 2020, and Predictions for 2021

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Remote working is something a lot of workers have dreamt about for years. Waking up, jumping out of bed and making a 30-second commute to the home office to begin work for the day. This dream has become a reality for a lot of workers due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, millions of employees around the world shifted to working from home.

While the change to remote work during the pandemic was necessary and extremely abrupt, remote working had been slowly but steadily increasing, especially over the last decade. Arguably, the pandemic accelerated something that was already inevitable, but it might have taken years to get to the stage where it is now. The question is, will most of us revert to the way we worked pre-pandemic, or is remote work now embedded in our culture?

Why Do People Want to Work from Home?

There are a myriad of reasons why people might want to work from home.

Avoiding a Long and Stressful Commute

Whether by car or public transport, rush hour is one of the most stressful times of the day. One study, carried out in the U.S., found that the average American who drives to work spends around 54 hours per year caught in traffic. Obviously there are far better ways we could be spending our time. Since the pandemic forced workers to stay home, those who had previously spent hours commuting have found that they have more time in their day. Whether that time is spent with family, focusing on well-being or getting ahead on work, this is clearly one of the major advantages of remote working.

More Time to Improve Well-Being

As we just mentioned, working from home cuts out the time it takes to commute and frees up certain parts of the day. Instead of being stressed out by the morning traffic jam, homeworkers have the opportunity to use time they would have spent commuting on activities that promote well-being. More people now have the opportunity to exercise, practice yoga or meditate.

A Quiet Place to Work

The open-plan office has become quite popular in recent years. Unfortunately, having to work on a floor with dozens of others doesn’t suit some employees. An open-plan office is particularly difficult for those who find it difficult to concentrate on their work in a noisy environment. Working from home has given some people the opportunity to concentrate on their work without distraction, thereby increasing their productivity.

For many people, however, home has been far from a quiet place during lockdown. For parents, for example, working from home can heap myriad distractions (not to mention additional responsibilities) on top of a busy working day. Personal circumstances and preferences dictate whether the home environment is a help or a hindrance when it comes to productivity.

Disadvantages of Remote Working

Lack of Work-Life Balance

However, remote working is not for everyone. Many people need an externally imposed routine in order to function properly. In this sense, working from home creates the unique challenge of trying to impose a routine on oneself. For example, a lot of employees who were forced to work from their homes during the pandemic have voiced concerns about having difficulty separating their work from their personal lives.

This issue is particularly prevalent for people who may not have a dedicated office space. When working from your kitchen table all day, it’s difficult to switch off in the evening.

People with children at home have experienced similar difficulties. People have reported that trying to balance work with taking care of children has caused increased stress and tension.

Difficulty Connecting With Colleagues

One of the major advantages of working in an office as opposed to virtual work environment is the ability to cultivate a strong relationships with colleagues. Unfortunately, when working remotely, teams usually meet with each other over video conference a couple of times per week. From a team building perspective, this is less than ideal. Often, it is the interactions that take place outside of formal meetings that allow colleagues to get to know each other and build strong relationships.

Impediments to Communication

When working alongside colleagues in an office, it’s easy to drop by their desk or arrange a quick meeting over a cup of coffee. This is particularly effective when you’re trying to address misunderstandings. Obviously, not being in the same physical location makes this type of ad-hoc communication between colleagues a bit more difficult. While picking up the phone or sending a quick direct message is always an option, there’s nothing quite like meeting a colleague face-to-face to communicate effectively and avoid misunderstandings.

Security Risks

The shift to remote working during the pandemic has highlighted security risks associated with having a decentralized team. Unsafe practices, such as connecting to an unsecure Wi-Fi network or sharing passwords with colleagues, could mean that sensitive company information is hacked or intercepted by nefarious actors.

Predictions for 2021

Increased Productivity

According to a survey of 1,200 Chief Information Officers (CIOs) by Enterprise Technology Research (ETR), the number of individuals working remotely is set to double during 2021. The survey also revealed that on the whole, CIOs were quite happy with productivity levels seen since the beginning of the pandemic. Of those surveyed, 48.6 percent submitted that productivity had increased, while just 28.7 percent noted that it had declined. This is a strong indication that remote working could benefit companies operating in certain industries.

Less Need for Physical Office Space

Obviously an increase in the number of remote workers has left companies with a lot of underutilized office space. Many companies will no doubt capitalize on this. By decreasing their physical presence, employers could reduce their overheads and ultimately increase profits.

Remote Working from Holiday Destinations

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the travel and tourism industry. Consulting firm McKinsey estimated that pre-pandemic levels of tourism will not return until at least 2024. This poses a major problem for island nations, such as those in the Caribbean and the Canary Islands, who depend on tourism for a large proportion of their GDP. A few tourist hotspots have responded to the crisis by encouraging remote workers to relocate for an extended period of time. One example of this trend is the Barbados “12-Month Freedom Stamp”, which essentially allows workers to apply for a one-year visa to work from island.

The Future of Work: A Divided World?

Not all jobs lend themselves to remote working. According to a study by the Telework Research Network of Canada, only around 44% of jobs can be performed remotely. Even during the height of the pandemic, we saw that a high percentage of workers did not have the luxury of continuing to work at home. These workers either temporarily found themselves out of work, or were forced to work on the frontlines with the public.

Workers who require specific machinery or equipment to do their job cannot take advantage of remote working. For example, factory and lab workers both rely on specialized equipment to do their jobs. Additionally, those who need to interact face-to-face with other people, such as dentists or hairdressers, do not have the option to work remotely.

Remote work is mainly suited to “knowledge” sectors. Pew Research found that those working in industries such as banking, financial services, real estate and information technology would be more adaptable to regular or permanent remote work.

This will obviously create a split in the economy between those who can and cannot work remotely.

A Hybrid Model for the Future of Work?

The utility of remote work is a divisive issue. While some companies, employees and industries fully embrace and even benefit from remote working arrangements, there are others for whom it is not practical, productive or even possible. Taking this into consideration, it seems that the way forward will be some sort of hybrid model, where more employees will be given the opportunity to work remotely as a full or part-time arrangement.

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