A year after the novel coronavirus began spreading in America, we’re finally beginning to understand how radically the world of business has been transformed. For decades we’ve had the tools, case studies, and best practices to evolve beyond an outdated cubicle culture. What we lacked was the willpower to leave the office behind.
But the pandemic accelerated a transition that was years in the making. As lockdowns went into effect, the proportion of remote workers skyrocketed from 3.4% last February to about 42% in April. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Americans realized they preferred Zoom meetings to the tyranny of a desk. According to a recent study by FlexJobs, 65% of newly remote workers don’t want to go back to the office.
Amid the devastation of COVID-19, it’s worth pausing to reflect on what this future portends. Reduced commute times. Asynchronous communication. Less carbon in the atmosphere and more livable cities. A world in which employees are more productive, organizations are more resilient, and workplaces are more equitable.
To understand the potential of remote work, look no further than GitLab, the open-source software developer that has operated on a fully remote basis for years, and currently employs more than 1,200 people in 65 countries. Years ago, GitLab’s model was an outlier, requiring the company to develop new tools and protocols to allow employees to communicate and collaborate effectively across time zones. New hires receive a sprawling employee handbook that details best practices for everything from Slack bots and watercooler chats to guidelines for throwing a virtual pizza party.
In retrospect, adoption of the GitLab model seems inevitable. “This was going to happen, but a lot of companies weren’t going to do it willingly,” says Darren Murph, the head of remote for GitLab. “The most dangerous words in business are, We’ve always done it this way.”
The San Francisco-based company has been helping spread the gospel, advising companies like Twitter, T-Mobile, and Sanofi on how to maximize remote work. But it’s also experimenting with how far the concept can go. Herewith, three predictions for the post-office future.
1. Workplaces Will Become More Equitable
Prior to the pandemic, employees who wanted to work remotely could expect to wrestle with significant trade-offs, assuming their employers gave them permission at all.
These employees likely wouldn’t be given the necessary tools and resources to work effectively, for one. Even if their office used collaborative software like Airtable or Slack, their superiors probably lacked much experience managing remote staff. Recognition and career advancement opportunities might have been hard to come by.
But when a whole company (or planet) transitions to remote work simultaneously, it puts everyone on an even playing field—in more ways than one.
“It should make it more equitable for people to get praised and promoted for the right things—that is, the results that they drive—not the wrong things, like the kinds of clothes that you wear, or the way you verbalize in a meeting, or just because you happened to get an office next to someone you can rub shoulders with,” Murph says. “The politicking that had a negative impact on anyone that wasn’t a white male, hopefully that will start to degrade, and you can build more equity around advancement and career progression tied to results.”
2. Cities and Towns Will Become More Livable
It’s not just interpersonal hierarchies that remote work might disrupt. Since the dawn of the industrial age, employment has been tied to physical location, with migration driven by job opportunities. When cities experience a boom they often become unaffordable, heightening economic divides. When small towns fail to provide opportunities, they’re liable to decline.
“There’s been a lot of research done on the ghost-towning of the world, as people feel like they have no choice but to move to major urban centers for the best-paying job,” Murph explains. “It hurts on two levels; the place that raised them is losing their tax dollars, and the place that receives them, there’s never really that connection of home. They may care about the place, but they’re not invested in it.”
Amid the pandemic, we’re already seeing signs of this reverse-urbanization in places with a high cost of living like Silicon Valley. At the same time, smaller cities and towns have begun offering incentives to attract newly remote workers. Cheap, outdoorsy destinations like Colorado’s Pagosa Springs and Salida have become unlikely boomtowns in these COVID-19 times.
The most dangerous words in business are, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’”
“Instead of lobbying for corporations to come build a skyscraper to bring jobs and tax dollars, a much more sustainable approach is ‘Let’s build the most livable town we can, and people will bring their own jobs,'” Murph says. “At the same time these major cities that are straining to handle the populations that they have, it will benefit them too if some of the people who don’t really want to be there move to places that are more aligned with who they are, and the people who have been displaced from these cities can actually afford to live there.”
If even a small proportion of urban-based employees take their salaries to smaller destinations, it will effectively reduce the cost of living and traffic congestion in cities and bring much-needed tax revenue to smaller locations. Murph believes that as a result, remote work will benefit everyone—even those who don’t have the option to work remotely themselves.
3. Companies Will Become More Resilient and Productive
Employers that get this right have the opportunity to enjoy benefits that go well beyond saving on real estate costs.
A recent report by Global Workplace Analytics suggested that if the estimated 48 million employees who have a remote-work-compatible job were to work remotely at least weekly, U.S. employers could save more than $500 billion per year. That’s due to savings on real estate, but also increased productivity and decreased costs from absenteeism and turnover.
By decoupling work from a single location, organizations become better insulated from regional challenges such as natural disasters, outbreaks, or infrastructure outages. At the same time, studies suggest that employees who are able to choose where they live and work are more engaged, productive, and loyal to their employer.
According to the FlexJobs study, 95% of remote workers have been equally or more productive overall since leaving the office; 73% say remote work has improved their work-life balance; and 81% would be more loyal to their employer if they were offered flexible work options moving forward.
Remote work can also help expand a company’s available talent pool, from those living within driving distance of the office to just about anywhere on Earth with internet connectivity. Murph says it’ll be a lot easier for companies to hire and scale up, given that they’ll be able to tap into a much more diverse population of workers.
In order to enjoy these benefits, organizations need to shed their “office mentality” and truly embrace a remote-first culture. That means not just allowing workers to continue operating remotely, but also providing them with the resources, policies, and training that will allow them to thrive in this new work environment.
“For many, transitioning to remote work is really challenging because they didn’t choose it, and in large part their company wasn’t ready for it,” Murph says. “Now people are getting better at it, so my hope is that it becomes much more second nature in the year ahead.”