How COVID-19 has made remote work the new norm

How COVID-19 has made remote work the new norm

by Adriana Stein

Updated November 7, 2022

As the majority of the world has begun working from home in an effort to reduce new cases of COVID-19, the way we view remote work has permanently changed. Here is an overview of how sentiments around remote work have developed and what that likely means for the future of work in general.

Before COVID-19

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, there were some companies who worked fully remotely, but they were rather considered to be business unicorns. These include such companies as WordPress, Zapier, GitHub Airtable, MailerLite, etc. According to McKinsey research, only 1 in 4 Americans worked from full-time for the pandemic, with even lower figures in other countries. Remote work simply wasn’t even an option for most companies. 

A lack of trust and support for open offices

A lack of options for remote work largely stemmed from the belief that productivity is better in the office. Companies competed for fancy offices in upscale areas to boost their notoriety in the business world and didn’t trust employees to complete their tasks as sufficiently when not in the office.  

Executives pushed for the concept of open offices for better collaboration, team work, and holistic company alignment. While the concept of hybrid remote (part time remote, part time in office) did exist, it was not the option that most companies were looking to switch to.

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During COVID-19

COVID-19 has forced nearly everyone on the planet to stay home more. A study from PWC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) states that 77% of the workforce is expected to work remotely at least once a week, while 55% will remain as such even after COVID-19 is over.

The rush to digitally transform

Digital transformation was a topic that companies have been confronted with for decades, but for many, it wasn’t a priority – until COVID-19. The task of transitioning a work force from the office to at home is no small project. If companies didn’t have processes and technology for these in place, they basically had to re-do their business model in the blink of an eye. This is why businesses in the retail industry, as well as travel and hospitality took such massive hits. Yes, they focused largely on providing in person products and services, but it’s also due to the fact that their internal and external processes weren’t digitised enough. With 500 million full-time jobs lost overnight, the business world faced a whole new challenger that hadn’t ever been considered before.

The shock of “un”loss from companies who were centred around digital

A few companies who embraced digital transformation in the past, or were created around it, have even experienced growth during COVID-19. Some examples are Amazon, Netflix, Zoom, Citrix, Microsoft, DoorDash, GrubHub, and Uber Eats. Not only were their products and services digitally accessible for consumers, their workforce was also largely digital or functioned based on automated, digital processes.

Many employees also took this time period to brush up on their skills with digital platforms, which has benefits for companies in the long run. With the possibility to take online courses for basically everything imaginable (fitness, language courses, cooking), it was a highly productive use of time that companies have now realised should be maintained in future. 

The key lesson here: make your business as digital as possible, and you lose less productivity in times of crises, as well as minimise financial losses. For a concrete example, we can look to the heavily growing concept of digital nomadismfor inspiration.

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The future: Remote work is here to stay

With the above statement abundantly clear, the concept of remote work is no longer just for tech companies who work with digital project managers and automated software – it’s for everyone, wherever and whenever possible. 

People want to work flexibly

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a true test of the power of digital transformation. According to the same McKinsey report, 80% of respondents said they enjoyed working from home and 41% said they were more productive than in the office. Employees also stated they appreciated the greater flexibility in their working hours to help with childcare and reducing commute times.

Nonetheless, not everyone wants to work fully remotely 5 days a week. According to PwC, 72% of study respondents said they’d prefer to work from the office two or three days a week. Some missed the teamwork and collaboration, while others still required access to print documents in order to complete their work.

The best solution seems to be to let people decide for themselves how they work the best. If the end goal is that the company is as productive as possible, then let individuals themselves choose which route they want to take (within reason of course for some specific professions). Executives tend to agree, with 55% expecting to extend options for home office to at least once a week after COVID-19.

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New sentiments around remote work

When the above statistics are combined with the fact that companies now have less locational constraints to find talent and satisfy customers, the total cost of business operations will decrease, while employee trust will increase, which in turn gives much more power of choice to employees.

Furthermore, these figures don’t suggest that the era of physical offices is 100% at an end. While one-third of executives say that they will need less office space due to remote work, 50% expect an increase in office space requirements due to company growth. There are also further cost considerations for better hardware and equipment, as well as establishing working hours and work-life balance.

The main takeaway here: be flexible with employees and their productivity will increase. Give them the resources they need to work better (such as software and language skills), and remote work will become more possible and valuable than ever before. Regardless of what happens with COVID-19 in future, one thing’s for sure: remote work is here to stay.  

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