Remote working has been on the rise in recent years. And by this time last year, it was clear that the battle for America’s best talent would be fought on the grounds of work-from-home benefits. But almost overnight, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed remote working from a great option to an absolute necessity. And while companies across the country grapple with the sudden shift amidst rising health worries, the future of remote working in a post-quarantine world is still very much up for debate.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at the basics of remote working, its benefits, and the challenges today’s companies are facing with it — all of which can help us ascertain whether remote working is, and will long continue to be, the new norm.
What is remote working?
Whether you call it remote work, work from home, or telecommuting — there’s no doubt that today’s professionals are becoming more mobile. Here in Washington, 8.2% of Bellevue City’s professionals work remotely at least half the time, followed by 7.6% and 5.7% of Seattle’s and Renton’s populations, respectively.
Furthermore, the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that 16% of the total American workforce — or around 26 million people — telecommute part of the time. This simply means that they don’t have to physically report to an office on certain days, or (in the case for full-time remote workers or freelancers) at all.
Benefits of remote working
The benefits of remote working may be small, but they are tangible, especially for industries that are better suited to remote work. It’s not a probable arrangement (yet) for medical professionals and other service-oriented workers. But freelancers as well as tech professionals, who both rely on and pioneer innovative solutions, can benefit from telecommuting immensely.
Cost-saving: Solopreneurs and startups can make significant savings by choosing not to rent an office. Cafés and affordable coworking spaces are everywhere, and they provide top-notch amenities for individuals and teams alike.
But even employees of medium to large companies can reduce their spending by telecommuting. For instance, tech experts in Silicon Valley use remote work as a cost-saving hack. As the country’s premier tech hub, the San Francisco Bay Area continues to attract top talent, but it’s no secret that it’s not the cheapest place to live in. Thus, the ability to work anywhere reduces or eliminates the need to live near company headquarters or commute to it, which in turn provides more freedom in living arrangements. Provided that one is a full-time mobile worker, you can technically live in another continent altogether.
Community: Some may argue that remote work can be isolating, but coworking spaces more than make up for it with their emphasis on community building. This is why freelancers and startups choose to set up shop in coworking spaces, as it gives them more opportunities to meet and connect with like-minded individuals.
Case in point: Kansas City is quickly becoming known as a startup community. This is partly because of the thriving work environment that coworking spaces in the area help cultivate. The Kansas City branch of coworking space provider Industrious makes this possible by establishing itself in the main commercial district of the city, specifically in the Country Club Plaza. It’s surrounded by high-end retail stores, restaurants, and office space that can equally benefit from the presence of other businesses. The beauty of remote working is that you’re not limited to your home office. With strategic locations like this, mobile teams and individuals gain access to more opportunities for collaboration and career growth.
Productivity: There are many reasons that remote work boosts productivity. For one, employees don’t have to brave the rush hour, and thus eliminate a great source of stress. More control over one’s workspace also means less distraction, which can lead to more efficient work.
Moreover, a myriad of communication tools makes remote work a more attractive option for companies. For example, digital platform Microsoft 365 enable distant collaboration for teams without sacrificing quality output. This proves to be significant as studies show that executives waste up to 23 hours a week on meetings. With proper planning and the right tools, digital meetings can be the solution to this major productivity killer. There’s no need to get everyone to a central location — everyone simply needs to connect, wherever they may be.
Given all the benefits above, it’s clear that remote work will be a key part of job market moving forward. Even before the pandemic hit, a report from the Society for Human Resources Management indicated that 69% of organizations had already implemented flexible working arrangements. Overall, lower costs, greater access to the community, and increased productivity make remote work a very attractive option for today’s workers. But does it have the potential to be more than an option and become the new norm?
The challenges today
For many companies, today’s pandemic serves as one big experiment to see if they can make remote working work. Not everyone had the opportunity to try out partial work-from-home arrangements before the stay-at-home order, and not all companies had entered the quarantine with all the infrastructure and equipment to make it work.
In the short term, one of the biggest challenges for managements today is to ensure that every single worker has the right tools and devices. Company laptops, enterprise software, and training were the important first steps that some found to be major stumbling blocks — especially in the case of those who had long resisted digitalization. For those companies, today’s crisis serves as a wake-up call.
Managers must also find new ways to lead their members remotely to ensure collaboration and productivity, which can be a challenge for those who are more accustomed to talking over conference tables and not through screens.
Moreover, Dartmouth’s Thalia Wheatley highlights how today’s current crisis means people are more likely to suffer from loneliness, which poses huge problems for our mental and physical health. Leaders must adjust accordingly, and to be patient with their team members, who are also making huge adjustments and are most likely under an unprecedented amount of stress.
There is also the issue of companies’ increased collective reliance on the internet for work and communications. The Federal Communications Commission has taken steps to help stave off the congestion on wireless networks, but experts maintain that bottlenecks might still persist in rural locations and congested cities.
Last but not least, there are so many types of jobs and entire industry operations that can’t be done remotely. Case in point: A Business Insider report reveals that the industries most affected by the pandemic are those largely in the service industries, such as travel, tourism, and non-food retail, as well as sectors like manufacturing. For workers in these sectors, there is simply no way they can accomplish their duties from the comfort of their own homes.
The bottom line
Though remote working is, by necessity, the new normal as of now, there are still plenty of challenges that companies across the country have to overcome to make it work in the long run. While remote working arrangements will likely continue to be elusive for service-oriented and manufacturing industries, the current pandemic is showing that remote work is definitely a possibility that can be embraced in the long run. Those for whom remote work’s benefits outweigh the challenges would do well to make the right adjustments to make that possibility a reality.
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