remote work

We’ve Been Given a Shove Into a Remote Work Reality – and That’s a Good Thing.

Ryan Murphy
April 29, 2020

In this little snapshot of time, non-essential workers who are still working are doing so from home. Businesses that had previously resisted remote work are now depending on it to survive. Those who had been on the cusp of taking the plunge have had the plunge taken for them.

And as it turns out, it works! Thanks to modern conferencing and collaboration technology, remote work is propping up workers, businesses, and a good chunk of a fragile economy.

So what will happen when things “open back up”? It’s widely agreed that life will not return to the normal we knew before – at least not for a few years. But when it does, will those who have recognized the efficacy of a remote workforce choose to maintain it to some degree, or will they expect everyone to head back into the office?

There are signs that once life does return to “normal,” remote work will remain at much higher rates than we saw before the pandemic. This will be about saving money on real estate, but also about appeasing a work force that has largely experienced a remote work reality for the first time.

Businesses were already relocating to save and attract talent.

Before COVID-19, businesses were being incentivized to pull up and set down roots outside of the major metropolises. It’s difficult to ignore the lure of tax breaks and cheaper leases being offered by smaller cities. In the US, states like North Carolina, Georgia and Florida are luring companies out of NYC, and their present or potential employees with them.

Beside the money being saved in real estate and taxes, there are several other benefits to operating out of less expensive spots. For one, it’s easier to attract talent to an area where cost of living is lower. This is especially true of the younger millennial talent who are struggling to survive (let alone buy homes) in major urban centres.

Millennials are also redefining the work commute.  They own fewer cars than previous generations and are more likely to favour public transit and bikes as means to get to work. That means that they need to live closer to work – but they can’t afford to do that in big cities.

Follow this trend to its logical conclusions.

If businesses are moving out of town to save on real estate costs and to attract larger talent pools, the next step on this path is clear: how about not having to pay for real estate at all, or at least substantially reducing your real estate footprint? How about offering top talent to work remotely from where they have chosen to land for any number of personal reasons? This is where the modern workforce, using modern conferencing and collaboration tech, was already headed.

The COVID pandemic is hastening an inevitable trend. In a recent poll of over 25,000 Americans found that 75% of workers wanted more options to work remotely post-crisis, and more than half – at 54% – want to go remote full time. Whether they’re ready for it or not, businesses may have to offer a remote work option too survive post-COVID.

Now, it’s easy to understand why some businesses have resisted this sort of decentralization of their workforce. It’s always been done this way, and it has traditionally been seen as necessary for effective collaboration, productivity and culture. But the pandemic – this shove off a cliff and big splat-landing into the remote work reality – is proving that the work and culture can continue with a few adjustments; adjustments that we were previously afraid to make because we didn’t know if it would work. But they do.

So what next?

Businesses have been forced to give remote working a try. Those who execute well are going to see the payoff.

Our friends and customers at Crowe Soberman LLP were better prepared for the COVID crisis than most. Having read the writing on the wall, and heeding the advice of their clients in healthcare, the firm started gearing up for remote work in early March. Everyone got a new laptop. They fail-tested their servers. When the shelter-in-place orders came in, their teams were already set up at home. Now with a skeleton crew of five people in the office, nearly 200 are working remotely.

And although they don’t have any plans to give up their office space and decentralize for good – making ANY sort of plans is premature for many of us at this stage in the crisis – folks have started to wonder if all that space is really necessary. This hadn’t been a consideration for them before, but having proved that it works raises the question.

“It’s not as efficient right now, obviously,” Bernie McGrade, Facilities and Office Services Supervisor at Crowe Soberman, told me – “but you can imagine a world in which we downsize our physical footprint and go to a hoteling model” in which employees come in when they need to and use general usage space.

Crowe Soberman isn’t going to be the only company having these discussions. Many are going to see the savings available, and the improvements made to work-life balance, and the potential of attracting talent from around the country when you don’t require workers to live locally.

Will remote work be the new normal?

There’s a real chance that the transition from physical offices to remote home-work was going to take off anyway. The opportunity for savings and the other benefits were too great, and the technology to make it feasible becoming cheaper and simpler all the time.

But we’ve been given a jolt – a shove into that reality against our will. We’ve been forced to make it work – and many of us are delighted to find that it’s great. Productivity is humming, work/life balance has improved, and we’re saving work-related expenses hand over fist. Now if we could just send our kids back to school, this could be a dream come true.

Here’s hoping that when the economy comes roaring back, more businesses stick with it and take advantage of this new reality that we’ve glimpsed here.

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