This one was a banner year for remote work, but 2021 is poised to be even bigger, and better, for those who continue to enjoy a flexible work arrangement.
Most Americans who work remotely today were forced out of their offices, and challenged to manage the sudden change, along with the added obstacles brought on by the pandemic. Despite this, however, the majority express an interest in working remotely moving forward, even after the crisis is over.
According to a study conducted by FlexJobs in February of 2020, only 4.7 million Americans, or roughly 3.4% of the population, worked remotely. In the past year that number rose to 42%, as the pandemic forced offices to close. A recent FlexJobs survey of 4,000 people who are working remotely found 65% want to work remotely full-time after the pandemic, while 31% would prefer a hybrid work arrangement.
Looking ahead to 2021—the year many expect vaccines to bring the pandemic under control—remote work is expected to become easier, more equitable, less isolating, and perhaps even more financially rewarding.
“I don’t think it will necessarily be as flashy as 2020 has been, with this huge overnight change, but I think 2021 has the makings of being an important year in terms of the foundation of the next level of remote work,” says Brie Reynolds, senior career specialist at FlexJobs. “More employers have a stake in it now, so I think we’ll see the foundation for what remote work will look like for the next five or ten years being laid in 2021.”
Here are a few of the ways experts expect remote work to expand and improve in the year ahead.
1. Policymakers will be incentivized to support remote workers
Prior to the pandemic, remote workers were a niche market and a relatively small constituency; in 2021, they will represent a much larger proportion of the population, providing incentive for policymakers to better serve their needs. “I think we could see stimulus [to support remote workers], or more broadband projects, or even talks of new tax and employment laws,” says Reynolds.
Reynolds adds that remote work-specific policies have gotten little attention in the past, given the low number of constituents they effected. Now that remote work is the norm for so many white collar workers, she is optimistic that there will be more political will to improve conditions for remote workers, from a policy perspective.
2. Remote workers will have access to more tools and resources
The higher proportion of remote workers will also give companies incentive to design products that improve the experience, while giving employers more incentive to invest in those solutions.
“That feeling of being seen and understood gets worse when you’re working remotely, so companies will compensate for that; they’ll start ramping up their recognition and rewards programs,” predicts David Johnson, the principal analyst for employee experience at Forrester Research. “Companies are going to invest quite a bit in up-skilling managers and investing in technology that will help them better understand employee engagement when working remotely.”
Johnson also expects to see better remote security, expense management, and collaboration and communication tools emerge in the coming year, among others. Some organizations have even hired dedicated staff to manage the needs of its remote workforce.
“When you’ve only got 5% of your workforce working remotely, it’s hard to justify upgrading to the solution that’s more seamless and easier for people that are outside of the office,” he says. “All of a sudden, if you have half your employees working outside the office, it becomes more justifiable.
3. Remote work will feel more natural
The most difficult part of remote work, according to Johnson, is the initial transition out of the office. Now that most have ripped off that Band-Aid, he suspects remote work will be a lot easier on everyone in the coming year.
For example, many Americans had to dramatically change their daily routines and habits in order to accommodate the remote work lifestyle, but by next year those growing pains will largely be behind them.”People have established new habits now, which is the hardest work, psychologically,” he says. “With that comes an increased comfort level, both for remote workers and executives.”
4. Remote workers will finally enjoy some work-life separation
Many of those who began working remotely in 2020 had a lot more to deal with at home than those who did so prior.
“As someone who has advocated for remote work for a long time, this is the worst way to go about it, where you’re forced to work from home and you can’t leave or do anything outside of that,” explains Job van der Voort, the CEO and co-founder of Remote, which helps organizations hire remote workers from around the world.
Van der Voort says that most remote workers are yet to experience the lifestyle’s true benefits due to stay-at-home orders and restrictions on mobility. “One of the most amazing things about working remotely is that you can work from wherever you want, and that could mean all sorts of exotic things; you could travel to another country for a while, or it means if I don’t feel like being at home all day I can go to a local coffee shop,” he says. “That is the kind of freedom that remote work has the potential to give you, and it’s the exact freedom you lack right now because of the pandemic, so I think the experience will massively improve.”
Van der Voort adds that one of the biggest challenges newly remote workers are struggling with is the lack of work-life separation, especially among parents. “We hear a lot of complaints about that, but once the pandemic is over that completely flips; it’s really great to be a parent working remotely, as opposed to it being harder,” he says. “You get to spend much more time with them, because you don’t have to commute.”
5. Remote work will become less isolating
By that same token, van der Voort says many newly remote workers are struggling with loneliness and isolation, but emphasizes that those issues are more a function of the pandemic than remote work itself.
“Remote work doesn’t imply that you’re not working together with other people, it doesn’t even imply that you don’t work near other people; I know many people that prefer to work in a coworking space, which is not allowed right now,” he says. “That is why I think, for almost everybody, remote work will significantly improve next year as the pandemic hopefully disappears.”
6. Remote workplaces will become more diverse
The rise of remote work has the potential to massively expand a company’s talent pool, as employers can hire the best and brightest from around the world, no matter where they’re located. As a result, van der Voort believes the workforce is about to get a lot more international, and a lot more diverse.
“If you no longer hire from just one part of the world, but anywhere, it’s actually easier to build more diverse organizations, because the talent pool is far greater,” he says. “Having a diverse group of people means you have a diverse group of voices in your organization, which leads to better thinking about how you do things.”
7. Remote workers can earn more
Just as employers can hire talent from just about anywhere, employees can now seek out job opportunities outside of their geographical area, providing them access to higher paying jobs in different markets.
For example, computer programmers typically had to move to places like Silicon Valley in order to realize their full earning potential. “Today you can live wherever you want, including outside of the United States, and make the same amount,” says van der Voort. “That’s really the future we’re heading for, and very rapidly so.”
In recent months, companies like Facebook have announced plans to tie compensation to physical location, meaning that those based in areas with a lower cost of living could earn less as a result. However, van der Voort believes such policies will quickly buckle under the pressure of the free market. “If you have great skill in something in particular, you will be well compensated for it, independent of your location,” he says. “If you believe you should earn more than you’re getting offered, you can look for a different employer.”