Commentators talked for years about a mass move to remote working, but it never quite happened.
Obstacles like inefficient technology and lack of face-to-face contact ultimately felt insurmountable for any wholesale shift to be viable. But during the pandemic, the barriers to remote working suddenly crumbled, with lockdowns and social distancing catapulting an estimated 557 million of the world’s workforce into working from home.
Although the pandemic is receding, there’s little sign of working practices returning to pre-COVID ‘normal.’ And while it’s here to stay, remote working might not continue in the same way.
Some organizations aren’t as enthusiastic about remote working as others. And while some employees never want to go back to the office, others find that working from home full time (something that was never going to be perfect) isn’t for them after all.
So what does the future of remote work look like?
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What percentage of jobs are remote?
If you’re a white-collar professional, you may have thought that everyone can and does work from home some of the time. There was, undoubtedly, a significant shift to remote working during the pandemic.
In the UK, for example, 36% of employees did some work at home in 2020 - up 9% on 2019. In the US, where only 7% of employees could regularly work from home before the pandemic, 36% said they did some telework because of it.
But it’s sector specific. Those in the services sector, like in-store supermarket staff, hairdressers, electricians and nurses, didn’t have the option to work remotely. And a survey of Fortune 500 executives reveals that this is likely to continue.
For example, just 15% of people working in healthcare expect to work remotely full-time post-pandemic, a number that rises to 40% for people in the IT sector. So companies who have people returning to an office, continuing to work remotely, or working on the frontline face a challenge to re-forge cultural connections between these disparate teams.
What is the future of remote work at your organization?
Will remote working continue in 2022?
It's impossible to say definitively what the coming year will hold, but the steps organizations are taking give us an idea of what's to come. Several high-profile organizations have enthusiastically embraced remote working, and like it so much they're making it the default setting.
US insurer has announced plans to reduce its 20 offices to four
In 2020, Shopify announced that it is a ‘digital by default company’ and that most of its staff will permanently work remotely
Dropbox is becoming a virtual-first company, with remote work being the default
LinkedIn will allow people to choose full-time remote work or a hybrid option
But not everyone feels so good about it. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon described working from home as “an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”, and there have been reports of English civil servants having their pay cut if they don’t return to their offices.
Culture is a key driver for organizations looking to get workers back on site for most of their time. There’s a concern that working remotely simply doesn’t fit with the ethos of these workplaces. There’s also a worry that new, younger workers will miss out on an apprenticeship process that can’t be replicated virtually.
And, despite evidence suggesting otherwise, there may still be a sneaky feeling that business leaders can't trust remote workers to do their jobs along with worries about general productivity.
But organizations that have gone fully remote hope to enjoy the potential benefits—recruiting from a wider talent pool, operating with greater sustainability and not having to maintain as many premises.
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In the future will everyone work remotely?
Although more people might work remotely, it’s not likely that it will be for everyone, as some jobs simply can’t be done virtually - those involving specialist machinery for example, or personal contact.
McKinsey says: "The potential for remote work is highly concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations and geographies."
Whether people work remotely is also strongly related to income, with lower-income households less likely to switch to telework during the pandemic. And on a larger scale, higher-income countries are also likely to have a higher percentage of people working from home. Estimates suggest 25% of people worked remotely during the pandemic in high-income countries, compared to 13% in countries with lower incomes.
Remote working future trends
For most companies, the future will likely involve finding a middle way between virtual-only working and getting everyone back to the office five days a week. When PwC asked employers, it found that while fewer than one in five executives want to go back to the office the way it was pre-Covid, only 13% want to let go of the office for good.
The result? "...most companies are heading toward a hybrid workplace where a large number of office employees rotate in and out of offices configured for shared spaces".
This offers something for everyone. Organizations benefit from the cultural, collaborative and creative advantages of having people together in one place at least some of the time. Employees get to keep some of the flexibility and space to concentrate they’ve enjoyed when working remotely.
Though it isn’t as revolutionary as full-time remote working for all, widespread hybrid working is still likely to cause big changes in many aspects of our lives. City centers, which are now dependent on large numbers of workers traveling into them every day, will have to adapt to the new way of working. So will transport networks which will serve fewer commuters.
And of course, with remote and hybrid working comes a much greater choice of where to live, as people no longer necessarily have to be close to their workplace. This could change our cities forever.
What are the benefits of remote working?
Allowing people to work remotely at least some of the time can offer enormous benefits to organizations. Here are five if them.
removing geographical limits means organizations can recruit from anywhere, giving them more chances of finding people who are the right fit for roles, regardless of where they live. It may even be possible to recruit from overseas, with collaboration tools overcoming time-zone barriers.
Make the most of your workspace
Having people on-site just some of the time allows managers and leaders to maximize the benefits of being with their teams - taking the opportunity to arrange one-to-ones and encouraging collaboration and socializing.
More diversity and inclusion
Being able to recruit from anywhere may help break down barriers and allow organizations to hire those who are right for the job, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Childcare responsibilities, which keep some parents out of the workforce, may prove less of a barrier when people can work from anywhere.
Research has shown productivity benefits from remote working. And with less time spent on commuting and fewer workplace distractions, many employees feel working from home gives them time and space to get on with their jobs. McKinsey estimates that more than 20% of the workforce could work at least part of the time remotely as effectively as they could from the office.
Better employee engagement
the opportunity to work remotely, and the flexibility that goes with it, is something that many employees want. According to one survey, 98% of workers1 say they’d like to work remotely at least some of the time. Offering the option may increase people’s feelings of connection to their organization and make them more committed to their jobs.