With the first case of the novel coronavirus being reported in early December 2019 in China to WHO declaring it a pandemic on 11th March 2020 COVID-19 has successfully uprooted the systematic routine of the workforce all over the globe. Lockdowns are being enforced everywhere, resulting in millions losing their jobs or businesses and many are being asked to work remotely. The future looks bleak if things continue the same way as they are now, with no end of the pandemic in sight and no certainty as to when – or if – our societies will return to normal.
However, not everyone can work from home and protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID-19. We forget at times that people like workers in manufacturing or construction exist and since they cannot take their heavy machinery home, they can’t work remotely. Similar is the case when it comes to health workers and first responders who are stationed at the frontline to fight against this pandemic. In fact, if just talk about the United States – not even the whole world – the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that only about 29 percent of Americans can effectively work from home, according to 2017-2018 averages. And this is a first world country we are talking about so imagine the havoc and chaos created in the third world countries spread all over the globe. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of workers still manage to excel at their jobs e.g. accountants, IT professionals, administrative staff, salespersons, etc. And with the schools and universities joining in by teaching online there is still some hope when it comes to containing the pandemic.
Is working remotely a new and revolutionary concept?
No. The resources and technology have greatly improved over the years, however, the concept of working from home is not a new idea, as FastCompany notes in a fascinating 2019 article.
When the last pandemic hit the world, the H1N1 virus in 2009, the internet allowed the world to keep the business world running. Businesses could connect via applications like Skype which provided options of web-conferencing and video calling. Facebook and Twitter exploded with increased traffic and email services like Yahoo!, Gmail and Outlook provided improvements to increase functionality. A similar trend has been seen over the last year as the COVID-19 pandemic struck with applications like Zoom taking over the internet with its feasibility. However, the difference between 2009 and today is the existence of a fully operational cloud which has made working from home that much easier.
In 2009, the cloud was still in the beginning stages of its development and this meant remote workers had to deal with slow and unreliable connections to access essential information. Today, the cloud has matured into a fully functioning mega beast that provides communication and storage based solutions like Google and Microsoft. Moreover, there are many other services built into the cloud-like virtual chat and networking programs which have enabled users to fully take advantage of the real-time processing power of data.
Today, to enable workers to work from virtually anywhere, businesses have incorporated cloud-based software solutions. This means that workers can work remotely with convenience while protecting themselves from COVID and thus helping in stopping the spread of the virus in whatever little capacity they can.
Of course, this does not come without its challenges. Many argue that human beings are social creatures by nature and this lack of face-to-face interaction and human connection can hurt mental health (as seen in Japan recently). It can also cause an unhealthy work-life balance and slower and ineffective communication.
Once it was deemed unsafe to go to offices, many found themselves working from their home offices or couches. This meant that much of the time they previously wasted, like traveling to and from their place of work, was now available for them to use. They could use these extra minutes, or hours, to sleep in or walk their dog or exercise or whatever it was that they found interesting or fun. This would, in turn, result in a more productive worker as they find themselves more relaxed and motivated to work.
However, not everything is candy and unicorns in this world. While some are capable of maintaining this work-life balance, some are not. They might find themselves glued to their laptops and phones, waiting for their next task and obsessing over their work to stay ahead. Usually, these people are restrained from following their workaholic instincts by the 9 to 5 working hours, but with more time flexibility it is a possibility that they might go overboard and their work-life balance simply turns into a work-work imbalance. On the other hand, some of us (including me might I add!) need strict deadlines and the 9 to 5 working hours to keep us focused, or else we just end up procrastinating. Without the strictness, we tend to stray and find ourselves not being as committed to work as we should be. Nobody is saying enjoying life is bad but enjoyment does not mean shedding yourself of responsibilities either.
It is essential to find that perfect work-life balance during this pandemic, or else it becomes too easy to be led astray.
The future – the new normal?
If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us it is the art of working from home and people have been quick to figure out how to churn out optimal work from their couches. So it is not too hard to imagine that once the situation moves towards betterment, working from home will remain popular (and the preferred choice) for many professionals. In fact, a Gallup survey revealed that 54% of U.S. workers would leave their current job for one that allowed them to work remotely. As one can imagine, this will create an increased pressure on corporations and companies to become more flexible. Now that many have proved that working from home does not result in decreased quality of work without being micromanaged, it will be difficult for companies to take that away from the talent. Let’s just say once workplaces are back in action, some hard-core negotiations are expected!
And this is not good news just for the workers! Over the course of the pandemic, many companies have been forced to realize that the money they have been spending on real estate for office space is better saved or spent somewhere else. Even if not all the time, having people work from home has been profitable – for both the company and in terms of productivity for the employees.
But let’s not get carried away and expect a whole shift to working remotely! Some professionals actually miss the human interaction and their in-person connections. So let’s expect a lot more flexibility (or at least hope for it!).