To say that 2020 was a chaotic mass experiment in working remotely may seem dramatic, but it’s not far from the truth. The seismic shift from commutable workplaces to flat-out remote work has been swift and purposeful, to say the least. Desperate times, right?
Love it or hate it, the fascinating thing about this transformation is that it would never have occurred without the pandemic.
Employers who had never before ventured into remote work territory had no choice but to try it out—even those who were previously hellbent against it. Yet today, after close to a year, many of those previous hold-outs have been forced to admit that mass remote work has indeed proven feasible, or even advantageous.
Remote Work vs. “Working from Home”
What is the difference between working remotely and working from home?
Given that many employees spent the last year greeting colleagues from their bedrooms and makeshift offices, it’s no wonder that the concepts of working remotely and “working from home” have been treated as interchangeable. Even pre-pandemic, they were often used interchangeably. There is, however, an important distinction.
While working from home is considered a benefit, or a way of occasionally shaking up an employee’s work experience, working remotely is a way of working.
In other words, working from home is temporary (the office awaits the employee’s return), whilst working remotely is a whole new M.O. This requires a different skill set, attitude, and heretofore untapped resources. For it to work, employees must be self-starters, proactive communicators, and capable of time management—and employers must facilitate all of the above.
What 2020 Did to Working Remotely
Pre-COVID-19, some companies offered a work-from-home option as a perk. Since this has now become an across-the-board norm for many, it has since been relegated to remote work territory.
A Canadian Workforce Study conducted by PwC Canada in July 2020 found that before the pandemic, 82% of Canadian employees worked primarily from an external workplace. By the summer, that was down to 27%, with 59% working remotely.
This change is, of course, most remarkable in Quebec and Ontario, the hardest-hit provinces. Just 30% of Ontarians reported feeling comfortable returning to their workplace within 3 months compared to 45% in Atlantic Canada and 47% in Alberta.
Overall, the fact remains that as more employers take note that work can be done effectively from afar, more Canadians than ever before will be working from home, even once the pandemic ends. According to a recent survey from Statistics Canada, nearly a quarter of Canadian businesses expect at least 10% of their workforce to continue working remotely post-COVID-19. The survey results also found that 25% of Canadian business are “likely” or “very likely” to offer their employees the option of working remotely post-pandemic, while 14% say they will make it a requirement.
All in all, 2020’s main takeaway is that this is only the beginning. In the US, according to Upwork’s latest Future of Workforce Pulse Report, remote work is getting better for the vast majority of companies as they adapt—68% of hiring managers say remote work is going more smoothly now than when the shift first happened at the start of the pandemic, and just 5% said it was getting worse.” This upward arc makes perfect sense as a new way of working is bound to have a learning curve.
Pros and Cons of Working Remotely
Let’s face it: working remotely is a huge change for many companies. The question is whether or not this is ultimately a positive. Let’s weigh the pros and cons, shall we?
Pro: Managing a remote workforce can mean significant savings for your company on once immutable costs like rent and utilities. If most or all of your team is working remotely, there’s no need to keep paying for large spaces and all the costs associated with them. Many companies have downgraded or even relinquished their spaces altogether.
Con: Employees who spend too much time at home sometimes have the tendency to lose creativity. As long as remote work remains a necessity (without even the reprieve of a local coffee shop), encouraging employees to take allotted breaks and take walks outside becomes an important aspect of the new paradigm.
Pro: Remote work brings with it increased flexibility and efficiency with regard to time management. 60% of hiring managers surveyed by Upwork cite increased schedule flexibility, 70% mentioned a reduction of nonessential meetings, and 54% cite no commute as facets of working remotely that have helped employees make better use of their time.
Con: Many employees will not be adequately set up to turn a space in their home into an office. Many more will have family members forget they are actually working, which can lead to distractions. The challenge for employers will be to provide support in the form of resources (i.e. chairs, computers, noise-cancelling headphones) which can help facilitate the shift.
Pro: For those who choose to take advantage, the remote work takeover has the potential to revolutionize the talent pool, as employers are free to hire the best candidates, regardless of where they’re located and whether or not they’re freelance. This brings with it the likelihood of a more diverse workforce. Diversity, in turn, leads to a more robust range of perspectives.
Trends in Remote Work for 2021
Although 2021 is no 2020, it seems highly likely that the foundations of remote work for the coming years is being laid right now.
So, what will happen this year? Well, probably many of the things we did out of sheer necessity last year will become normalized. This is the year vaccines are expected to reign contagion in, which would make remote work easier, less isolating, and maybe even more rewarding.
According to Statistic Canada’s survey, companies that expect their employees to continue working from home will include the information and cultural industries sector (47%) and the professional, scientific and technical services sector (44.5%). But many companies that fall outside of these sectors are also seriously looking at what they can learn from the pandemic going forward.
Here are some trends to watch for in 2021 and beyond:
Working Remotely + Office = Hybrid
The new “hybrid” model of work, which combines office-based and remote work will become far more commonplace. This Toronto company has already transitioned to offering employees unprecedented flexibility. While some employees will prefer to work remotely full-time, others will choose to take advantage of office time for in-person interactions, and some will choose a mix of both.
The way companies hire new employees changed very drastically in 2020. Interviews were largely conducted by videoconference. While many companies will fall back on traditional interview processes and the inflexible modes of evaluation that accompany them, others will shift instead to evaluating a candidate’s capabilities as demonstrated via their online platforms: soft skills like communication, collaboration, teamwork, and adaptability will be the new holy grail.
For most companies, having employees work outside the office will require reinventing many processes and policies. Working remotely can make it more difficult to highlight professional achievements, for instance. Employees will need to find ways to amplify their engagement virtually and employers will need to rework traditional models of evaluation and assessment.
The need for cloud-based HR technologies will become ever-present as companies seek to provide a better, more seamless employee experience for those working remotely. These tools can be harnessed to facilitate remote hiring, time-off tracking, performance management, onboarding, learning and development, smart decision-making, and lots more.
Companies will need to find intuitive ways of combining technology with empathetic and human leadership—not just to boost productivity, but to put employee wellbeing first in more meaningful ways and to counteract the isolating effects of working remotely.
Bottom line: the ongoing pandemic has proven that employees can work from home very effectively—without compromising productivity. The question is, will the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? Only time will tell. As we move further into 2021, collective company culture will continue to evolve in unprecedented ways. I say it’s probably best not to resist: let us ride this new wave into a bigger and brighter future, shall we?