Is COVID-19 Showing Us the Future of Work?

June 2, 2020

Is COVID-19 Showing Us the Future of Work?

Work from home protocols in place. Travel restrictions. Large conferences canceled. Sales pitches via video conference instead of flights across the country for face-to-face meetings. The future of work? Perhaps.

The nature of work is changing. We are moving from a “one manager, one office, 9-5” world to a “fluid, team-based, work-from-anywhere, always-on” world. While we are in the early stages of this shift (although many have already moved), some believe COVID-19 may be accelerating the transition.

In The End of Jobs, I argue that full-time employment will come to more closely resemble the on-demand worker of today leading to the end of jobs as we know them (one office, one manager, 9-5). The on-demand worker today is largely a work from home (WFH) and/or remote worker. In that sense, a pandemic forcing many companies into WFH/remote as a way to keep work going while keeping team members safe, is creating a future many predict. Before we talk about the future, let’s look at the data on remote work.

The shift in work started to gather steam in the 1990s as technologies enabled collaboration. While people had been WFH in many contexts for generations, it wasn’t until the technology of telecommuting was adopted in mass that WFH arrangements became more commonplace.

Technology advances are accelerating. Email has evolved to team collaboration channels. Monday meetings have become updates in project management software. Telephone calls have become video calls. The reality is with these technologies enabling most knowledge work; a colleague can be down the hall, on another floor, down the block or half a world away and still feel right next door.

You no longer need to be in the same place to be on the same team.

Prior to the crisis in the US, according to the FlexJobs State of Telecommuting, about 3 percent of the labor force worked more than 50 percent of the time remotely. This has grown nearly 100 percent in the last ten years.

And let’s not forget, according to all the studies remote workers are also:

  • More productive: A Stanford University study in 2018 found “astonishing” increases in productivity when people WFH.
  • More engaged: The 2018 ADP Research Institute Global Study on Engagement shows virtual workers are nearly two times more engaged than traditional office employees.
  • Higher retention: The same Stanford study showed a 50-percent decrease in attrition for WFH employees.
  • Cost less: Up to $10,000 in savings per employee from reduced office space and overhead for the company and $7,000 for the employee through savings on childcare, communicating and work clothes.
  • Less stressed and healthier: An OWLLabs study showed a 24 percent increase in feeling happier when working from home.

And of course, we must note that by not commuting remote workers cause less environmental impact.

While WFH/remote work isn’t for everyone, it is increasingly common in most industries. However, these models don’t apply as well to the factory floor or the barbershop. The OECD estimates that 42 percent of the US labor force could work remotely (among the highest in the world). The future of work is complex, and every industry is experiencing change, including the explosion of remote work.

But the forces of globalization and technology that moved us from the “one manager, one office, 9-5” world to the “fluid, team-based, work from anywhere, always-on” world are clearly being impacted by COVID-19. But are these changes and WFH protocols temporary?

WFH takes infrastructure, protocols and policies and when first implemented companies found holes. Holes in IT systems, holes in equipment, holes in personnel, holes in process. These holes were patched and patched quickly. Policies and procedures were changed. Companies embraced WFH because they had no choice, and they are making it work. Will these actions, designed to help stop the spread of a virus accelerate the inevitable changes in the world of work? 

Yes. There will be lasting impact from these changes as they accelerate the steady movement to fluid, team-based always on, work from anywhere.

Mass changes in labor statistics happen very rarely. This is one of those times. While corporate decision-making is thoughtful and complex, taking into account many issues, sometimes decisions get made for them. Companies are learning that WFH is a benefit and it works, but they will not suddenly shut offices as the threat of this pandemic subside and work returns to normal. The normal already was a slow and steady evolution towards more remote work.

The statistics are well known and the infrastructure is mostly in place, thus the trends will continue, and remote and WFH will grow at astonishing rates. I predict that remote work will move from 3 percent to 8 percent of the labor force in the coming years. A massive shift and something we rarely see in the world of work. Keep in mind that increase is 5 million people!

Aside from the infrastructure and policy changes another big change will drive the future of work as remote. Previously this was a pull driven dynamic; workers would ask if they could WFH. Companies, mostly, would only reluctantly agree. Some companies would say no in all cases, "to work here is to be here" or "presence equals productivity." Now that companies are being forced to see the efficiency WFH can bring, we will move to a push model. Companies will start offering it more freely. This will open up of new talent pools of workers. Those that for various reasons needed to WFH were excluded from many opportunities. No longer!

COVID-19 is showing us the future and the future is remote. 

The Authors: 

Jeff Wald is the author of The End of Jobs (June 2, 2020/Post Hill Press), the founder of Work Market, active angel investor and startup advisor.