Virtual work-from-home (WFH) has become business as usual. Not even a year ago, working remotely was an opportunity for just a small percentage of the workforce. Then along came the COVID-19 pandemic, and that caused an instantaneous change. Companies in traditional office spaces were forced to send their employees home to work remotely—and many of these employees will continue to work from home, long after the pandemic is over.
The change was inevitable. While the pandemic imposed the WFH economy, it was going to happen anyway. Over time, businesses would have realized that technology enables this capability. Excluding factory jobs, restaurants, grocery stores, retail and other businesses that require people to be on location, many companies are finding the change is not as painful as they may have thought. While a 100% WFH workforce may not be for every company, the number of companies that will adapt to a percentage of their workforce going remote will have greater impact beyond the company, its employees and its customers.
According to Joel Block of Bullseye Capital, writing in his 2021 trends report, consider that fewer people commuting has several important implications, both positive and negative, that will impact the economy.
1. Commuting: WFH means people won’t be commuting to their offices. Fewer commuters means fewer cars on the road. That’s good for climate change and emissions. It means less traffic tickets, which is bad for government. And as people drive less, that means less gasoline usage, which impacts oil companies. Lower gasoline sales means less tax collected, again bad for government.
2. Office Buildings: If people don’t have to come to an office, why lease office space? The demand for office space will drop. Buildings will lose tenants. Expect to see downtown properties repurposed from commercial office space into residential and other uses.
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3. Fewer People Downtown: Downtown restaurants and other businesses in commercial districts will see fewer customers. Coffee shops, restaurants and local retailers dependent on the daily foot traffic will be hit hard.
4. Spending Moves to the Suburbs: With fewer people downtown, money will start to be invested further away from the city. People working from home will want larger homes with extra rooms for offices and will move further out where they can build bigger homes that are less expensive.
And then there is the impact on employees. Being forced, and without notice, to a new way of work, was not easy for any organization that had not yet considered WFH prior to the pandemic. It was a challenge, but some found it to work well enough to not return to the office, while others are struggling to make it work.
There are companies and employees that love the new WFH economy, while others are having a hard time making it work. The general consensus is that it works in the right situations. Consider that WFH is not new. Even before the pandemic, there were over 5 million U.S. employees working from home at least half the time. According to Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, 56% of the U.S. workforce have jobs that are at least partially compatible with remote work. Furthermore, she predicts that 25-30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days. People can be very productive when working from home, sometimes even more so. Both companies and employees save money. Lister’s research estimates that a typical employer can save about $11,000 per year for every person who works remotely half of the time. The employees save on gas, clothes, cleaning and more.
There is a potential problem with new hires working remotely. According to TINYpulse, there are two important issues to be concerned with. New hires don’t know their colleagues. This has resulted in 34% less peer recognition for them than for their counterparts. Furthermore, the new hires haven’t had the opportunity to spend time at the office, unlike other employees who were there prior to the pandemic. They don’t get to “live the culture” of the company. This results in being 20% less likely to acknowledge company values. TINYpulse quotes Rolf Bax, CHRO of Resume.io, who says, “I’ve also found it more difficult to successfully orient new hires to their role remotely. I think the biggest challenge of remote onboarding compared to traditional in-person methods is that it is more difficult for a new hire to get a feel for an organization’s culture and its people from behind a screen.”
In RingCentral’s research report titled Is Remote Work Sustainable?, a focus on a “connected culture” leads to significant gains in employee productivity and well-being. Connection is more than being technologically connected. It is about conversations, activities and projects that bring people together, even if they are working from home. It’s good leadership and management working to keep employees motivated and feeling a part of the organization. It takes frequent communication, good collaboration tools and social events like virtual happy hours, peer chats and group video games. And for the employees who self-report themselves as being more productive, 71% felt more connected to their colleagues than before the pandemic.
Change is often tough, but it can also be very rewarding. The increase in employees working from home will have impact, both good and bad, on individual employees, the organizations they work for and the larger economy. For the companies, the struggle can simply mean changing the process and putting the right collaboration/communication tools in place. What worked before may not work anymore. For example, the idea behind the findings presented by TINYpulse can be remedied by simply changing the way people are trained as they begin their employment. (Keep in mind simple doesn’t always mean easy.) If productivity and motivation become a problem, learn from the success other companies are having in these areas. There are plenty of articles and research out there to study and learn from.
Some organizations will eventually have their employees return to an office or building. Others will adapt to a new way of business with WFH employees. One is not necessarily better than the other. If we were to look for a silver lining, the pandemic gave many companies the opportunity to test the waters and discover new ways of doing business that may continue to work for them—and their employees—long into the future.