Since the reality of COVID-19 sheltering-in-place hit the public consciousness, there has been conversations about how everything will change. In all this discussion of the “new normal”, remote work understandably comes up a lot. With innumerable organizations embracing remote work to stay viable, the question becomes how pervasive will it stay whenever we emerge on the other side of the pandemic? While the scale of remote work we’re seeing is unprecedented, remote work and the technology that supports it are nothing new. What can we learn from past remote work efforts, and will it end up as the new normal for most organizations?
Transcript of Checksum Episode 9: Is Remote Work the New Normal?
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, there’s been a lot of talk of what the new normal will look like. Given that we have no idea how long this situation will last and what the world will look like when its over, this is all pure speculation. Which is fine… I mean we’re all on lockdown. What better time to speculate?
But one of the common themes is that work as we know it will change. A lot of that is driven by the fact that work has already changed. I don’t need to tell anyone that we’re working from home at a scale never before imaginable, finding creative ways to stay connected, productive, and safe. Companies have started virtual “water coolers” and embraced collaborative messaging. We have companies like Microsoft, that has seen Teams meetings swell to hundreds of millions of participants, say they’ve effectively seen two years of digital transformation in two months.
The question is, will all this remote work be the new normal?
There’s been a lot of indicators that companies are planning for remote work as a long term investment. It was interesting to see at the start of COVID-19 lockdowns in the US, many tech companies were trying to gently roll out office closures, trying to keep some employees working from home while keeping offices open, at least in theory. But state mandates often forced organizations to move to full remote workforces.
It’s outside the scope of this video to talk about the feats of IT that were needed to make all of this possible. It’s a testament to modern cloud computing that while we saw some services like Slack and Teams have outages, we never really saw larger Azure, AWS, or GCP outages knocking out a bevy of dependent services and organizations. I mean, we thought we did a few weeks ago, but it turned out just to be a bad 13-hour window for T-Mobile.
As lockdowns have dragged on, we see more organizations committing to remote workforces. Companies like Twitter, Zillow, Shopify, and Facebook are working on making remote work a permanent part of their workforce, saying they’ll reopen offices but don’t intent to ever require employees to come back.
This is backed up by a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers CFO survey, which saw over half of the respondents say they would make remote work “a permanent option” with roles that allow it once on-site work is feasible again. That same survey, when asking about if anything from #pandemiclife will make your company better in the long run, the number one response was work flexibility, with that response increasing from May to June. Sure remote work is only part of that equation, part of it is assuredly tied to annoyingly pinging employees at all hours, but it definitely is a part of that category. The survey also showed concern about remote productivity alleviating. In April, the survey found that over 40% of respondents were concerned about effects on workplace productivity as a result of COVID-19, it was the number three response at the time. By June it didn’t even rank in the top five.
What’s weird about this is that remote work is nothing new. It may feel like 2020 is perfectly timed to take advantage of key advances in technology to make it possible. Zoom calls have become an iconic part of this work from home mass exodus after all. But it’s not like video conferencing and calls are in any way new. Heck Skype is 16 years old, and we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first commercially available video calling. We can say that things like the public cloud, video calls, and ubiquitous connectivity have made remote work possible. But given the ingenuity of humans in general, I think its fairer to say this has made it easier, rather than possible.
A recent piece by David Streitfeld in the New York Times looks at some recent retreats from telecommuting in the enterprise since the turn of the century. Companies like IBM, Yahoo, and Best Buy had embarked on ambitious plans to make telecommuting part of their corporate culture, only to have them reined in throughout the 2010s. IBM at one point had 40% of its workforce remote, something Facebook hopes to surpass by 2025.
Why did those efforts fail? Was it a lack of people, process, and/or technology? I’m not a productivity or business consultant, but looking at the names involved, those were prominent companies, but ones that were undergoing severe disruption at the time. This puts severe pressure on management to steady the ship, and often introduces new management. One of the best ways to make it seem like you’re doing that is to change things up; and there’s nothing that will spur going back to traditional “business as normal” than turbulent times. But I don’t see any analysts out there say that the struggles any of those companies had was a direct result of a large remote workforce. For IBM it was investing in a Cognitive Services business that never could scale the way they imagined. For Yahoo, it was flailing its way to irrelevance with a sprawling and confusing lineup of sites, content, and ads. And for Best Buy, it was trying to exist as a retail chain in the age of Amazon. Two of the three still exist as companies, but I’m not sure how much shifting back from remote work impacted that.
There will undoubtedly be many challenges organizations have to face as mass remote work becomes workplace. Managers will have to become used to not physically seeing their employees at work. We’ve already seen some organizations resorting to spyware to still get that same source of control. Reporting work becomes much more important for employees, both to earn the trust of their managers, and to keep themselves from being out of a job. Despite the fact that you’re probably sick of Zoom calls right now, we’re still in the honeymoon phase of all this. How do organizations and employees handle things like burnout when work-life balance goes from shifting your physical location to simply a state of mind?
These are questions we’ll learn the answers to as we continue through to whatever the new normal will hold. The organizations that are invested in learning the answers and optimizing for this remote work future are probably going to be the ones in the best position to get to that normal first.