There is little debate that COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to remote work in 2020. However, what the future really holds once the global pandemic subsides is less clear.
Will workers, required to work from home due to lockdowns and office closures, be called back to their company headquarters? If so, will it be full time? Will companies permanently adopt remote work policies? And how will that impact office space needs, company culture and hiring practices?
One startup founder shared on Twitter what he has learned from speaking with approximately 1,000 companies in recent months about their plans for remote work. Chris Herd is the CEO of startup FirstbaseHQ, an all-in-one provisioning platform that lets companies supply and manage all the physical equipment their remote workers need to safely and effectively work from home.
Here are his insights into what the future holds for remote work now, and in the coming decade.
Companies are planning to cut their commercial office space by 40-60%. This is consistent with recent headlines about a move away from a headquarters model to a “hub and spoke” or “micro HQ” office model. These companies will allow workers to work from home anywhere from 2-4 days per week, with only 1-2 days in the office if needed.
Some companies are going to take it one step further. As many as 30% of the companies Herd has spoken to are considering getting rid of their commercial office space entirely and becoming “remote-first” organizations.
Remote-first organizations recognize one of the most valuable benefits is access to a broader talent pool. “Rather than hiring the best person in a 30-mile radius of the office, they can hire the best person in the world for every role, ” Herd says, which echoes the sentiment of many remote work advocates.
Another benefit is cost cutting. The cost of supporting remote workers is much less than the cost of supporting those same workers in office space. Chris asserts this difference is ten-fold going from $20,000 per employee per year in office space costs down to $2,000 per employee per year for a remote work setup.
What do the workers at these companies think? According to Herd, “approximately 90% of the workforces we’ve spoken to never want to be in an office again full-time.” Anecdotally, he added that remote work is the plan for the next decade for the smartest people and most exciting companies he knows personally.
Part of why workers want remote flexibility is for a better quality of life. Companies think their employees will be happier as a result of the ability to remote work instead of being expected to commute hours a day to sit in office chairs. Not surprisingly, companies that have committed to becoming remote-first are seeing a rapid decentralization of their workforce. Given the option to be remote, their employees are leaving expensive cities to be closer to family.
Companies care about the positive environmental impact on carbon emissions as a direct result of removing the office and corresponding commutes to the office.
The primary fear about remote work is not the quality of work from their remote employees, but losing the more intangible company culture traits from traditional physical office environments like water cooler chat, in person collaboration, and the quality of communication.
Herd does note that many companies realize these were just excuses to not go remote before. However, the adjustment to asynchronous work is a huge struggle. By trying to recreate the physical office remotely, companies are actually adding strain to their operations.
Burnout among employees is a serious concern. Companies are paying close attention to remote burnout and its negative impacts on productivity. The companies Herd has spoken to are very concerned that their remote employees will burnout because they are working too hard, so they are actively exploring ways to combat this.
The majority of companies are considering ways to use remote onsites, where they bring employees together in person (once it is safe to do so) for a week at a time to improve company culture. Portugal, Spain, and Puerto Rico were all listed as top destinations being considered to host these in person gatherings in the future.
Personal injuries are becoming a huge problem with employees reporting back, neck, and repetitive strain injuries as a result of not having the proper ergonomic equipment when working from home.
With a shift in how performance is assessed, there is a growing and welcome focus on output as the measure of performance, with an increased need for tools to enable better tracking of that output.
Effective written communication and documentation is the “unspoken superpower of remote teams”, Herd says, and “the most successful team members remotely will be great writers”. To help their employees write better, companies are actively looking for tools that will enable their teams to do this more effectively.
Organizational structure will flatten, removing managerial bottlenecks that are unnecessary in a remote asynchronous environment. To do this, however, there will be a need for coaching and facilitation on organizational effectiveness.
These insights were pretty universal across organizations of any size. Herd explained that his company, “spoke to early-stage companies, publicly listed tech companies, through to legacy incumbents with hundreds of thousands of employees”, and all will be more remote.
Also, the shift to remote work is being driven at least somewhat by peer pressure. Companies that see competitors going remote is causing them to follow suit for fear of losing talent if they don’t.
Whatever the reason for companies and workers making the shift, Herd may be right when he says that “the 2020s are the remote work decade.”