On Thursday, March 19, 2020, something seemingly insane was happening. Something almost unfathomable. Something revolutionary, even.
58% of American knowledge workers were working from home.Almost three out of every five.
On an average day in an average week in an average year -- say 2019 -- 27% would access at least one corporate system at least once a day from a remote location. On weekends, since Americans are workaholics, that number would typically rise to 43%. But clearly COVID warped reality and broke the rules and changed our understanding of “normal,” resulting in 58% of white collar American working from bedrooms, home offices, kitchen tables, and other non-office locations.
Our understanding of “normal” changed, very quickly.
And perhaps, forever.
Where we are right now.
About a quarter of the U.S. population is now vaccinated*, but to this day, Facebook employees can work wherever they choose. Microsoft has adopted permanent work from home policies. Apple CEO Tim Cook, who just spent $5 billion on an futuristic circular head office, said the company’s work from home policies will prompt long-lasting changes, adding that he doesn’t believe Apple will “return to the way we were because we’ve found that there are some things that actually work really well virtually.” Google, Shopify, Slack, Starbucks, Target, and Siemens are just some of the thousands of global companies who have made similar changes.
And the changes aren’t just about where people work.
It’s about how you work.
How much you work.
When you work.
And how you integrate work with family and fitness and fun.
Salesforce -- which also recently spent hundreds of millions of dollars on high-profile real estate -- declared the near-sacred 9-to-5 workday dead. In fact, president & chief people officer Brent Hyder changed the conversation, highlighting that it’s not just about office, home, or flex (the where of work) … but also about the when: the different schedules when people put in the hours required to do their jobs and when they take personal time to manage their lives. In other words: mornings might be great for some. Midnight works better for others.
A McKinsey report puts it this way:
The virus has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, setting in motion a structural shift in where work takes place.
Another way of phrasing it: the future is happening faster than most of us predicted. We all kind of knew the future of work didn’t look like a factory for ideas with rows of desks jammed into a sweatshop-like-office. But it took a virus 600 times smaller than a grain of salt to break through a few hundred years of workforce traditions and expectations and actually accelerate change.
(Of course, that’s why Adam Jackson and Gabriel Luna-Ostaseski founded Braintrust two years ago. Entrepreneurs can see around corners … and COVID-19 accelerated 10 years of change into six short months.)
Who that change will impact.
Unsurprisingly, hairdressers probably can’t dial in on Zoom for their jobs. People in manufacturing probably need to be in the factory. Chefs need to be in the kitchen.
(Until, perhaps, they train Flippy the kitchen robot to cook for them.)
But developers and designers and project managers and writers and tech support workers can work from almost anywhere in the world … even places with formerly snail-paced rural internet, thanks to Elon Musk’s space-based telecommunications company, Starlink. Therapists might be better in person, but can do a lot over the phone. Fitness instructors might want to be in the gym, but are also able to lead classes online or in apps. According to McKinsey’s analysis of 800 jobs in nine different countries, “more than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office.”
That’s probably realistic, even if it feels like the low end of the spectrum to those of us who have been working from home offices since February 2020.
But even if it’s low, that’s still 3-4X more remote workers than pre-COVID-19. And, as McKinsey says, would have a profound lasting impact on urban and rural economies, consumer spending, transportation systems, and more. Think rural real estate prices, for one.
That’s not spread evenly across the economy, of course.
Jobs that are most removed from realities of the manipulation, transformation, and shipment of physical objects have the most potential for virtual work. Finance and insurance are some of the highest-opportunity areas for remote work: payments giant FIS moved 95% of its 55,000-strong global workforce to home offices in just six weeks. IT workers, developers, and engineers are high on the list, as are some scientific personnel and some teachers or trainers.
What that change will affect.
Work is about more than tools and it’s about more than location. Making work work, wherever it happens, is more than adding a desk to a bedroom and upgrading the home internet.
It means a great reliance on Slack and Asana and Zoom and all the tools of modern teams. It means meshing different schedules and time zones so that team members with different physiological and biological rhythms can work when they’re most productive, but also sync as needed.
There’s additional effort in that, of course. But let’s not kid ourselves: there’s also a ton of effort and cost both for companies and people in having and maintaining a physical workspace too: rent, insurance, supplies, and more on the corporate side; commute time and inconvenience -- with some convenience -- on the talent side.
What we’re seeing emerge is the future of work.
There will be flexibility in location, with some in-person and in-office work for many, though not all. There will be flexibility in time, with allowances for overlaps for collaboration and syncing. And there will be more investment in tools which manage the process of work no matter where it happens. We’ll see some shared virtual experiences too, though Microsoft’s Mesh is probably more sci-fi than docudrama right now.
And there are a lot of positive outcomes for both companies and talent.
Companies get more access to global talent, wherever it is. They also get a 24/7 always-on vibe, with work always progressing in different time zones and support for global clients always available … without having to get people to burn the candle at both ends. And they can appeal to people who are supremely talented but don’t, for whatever reason, want to dedicate 40 hours a week to one role.
People get a greater choice of employers and jobs, along with increased flexibility in what they do and how much of it they take on. Essentially, they’re closer to being self-employed and self-managed, and that comes with greater opportunity to be self-actualized.
There’s still a lot to learn about this new way of organizing ourselves for productivity and reward, of course. We’re still building the structures that will enable seamless application of talent to problems, and friction-free mobility between companies and tasks. But we can clearly see that there’s something worthwhile in what became a necessity. Employers are seeing more productivity as workers adjust, McKinsey says. And 45% of employees say they’re more effective working remotely. Fewer people commuting means less pollution. And democratization of opportunity regardless of geography has the potential to spread wealth beyond the megacities and more evenly throughout the country … and the world.
Some companies, like Wordpress, the technology that powers 30-40% of the internet, have always been 100% remote. Others, like Apple or Target, were almost 100% in-office. The future, very likely, is somewhere in between.
One thing we do know: it will never again be 100% in-office.
*This statistic is representative of the vaccination rate only at the time of writing on April 12 2021.
What's next for YOU in remote work?
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If you’re Talent, and you’re looking for more opportunities with global brands doing great things, apply to join Braintrust. You can work from anywhere … and keep 100% of your earnings.