The Future of Remote Work-The Unintended Consequences

Covid-19 has certainly upended the workforce schedule and many employees are grateful for it. Despite the misery that COVID-19 has delivered to the world, there are many silver linings including quality family time, new online career opportunities, the coming metaverse. High on the list are additional family time, less wasteful commutes and cleaner homes which are positives for most even it does include a slightly uncomfortable, makeshift desk in the dining room. Once tied to mundane offices filled with the annoying sound of printers and phone conversations, the chains were broken and companies seemingly learned how to operate without the brick and mortar confines of the past. Or did they?

As much as employees may be soaking in the moment, as they should, this experiment may not be as sound as some may believe. For starters, there is definitive generational angle as to how this will play out. Baby boomers that are still running many of the worlds businesses are cemented into the culture of the office. This is where company culture is created, loyalty rewarded and bonds solidified. Generation X and Millennials, many of whom are in senior roles, are caught in between, realizing the benefits of working at home but also tying productivity to in-person work. The social aspect of working for this bracket is not just tied to productivity but also to mental wellness. Working from home is a lonely world to many and even if a task can be accomplished, how sharp is the mind when there is no one to encourage or motivate. Just think of a home gym vs. the fitness club.

Lastly, the later part of Millennials and Generation Z have grown up where for many, socializing largely involves online gaming, texting, phone calls or chatrooms. While this came in handy during lockdowns, it only further isolated man young adults from creating personal bonds and learn to appreciate human interaction and contact. This group is the one that would most likely thrive in remote work but not necessarily for the right reasons. Yes there are many jobs such as IT support, programming, app development and so on, that are more than capable of flourishing from home but there is more than just a successful business model to take into consideration. The rapid increase in mental illness amongst this age group, including Generation A, is something to be very concerned about. Isolation from many of these people is what they are looking for, only hopping online to seek support and comfort when needed. But how effective is this and what would be the long term affects?

While we could debate the importance and implications of mental wellness in the age of COVID-19, let’s focus on the potential future of remote work. Despite you now having carved out a respectable office and continue to promise your managers that your accomplishing far more at home than in the office, reality needs to settle in for most. While companies run by Boomers and Gen X’ers have been patient and open to flexible schedules, 100% remote or hybrid schedules, the ultimate decision in the end is going to come down to implementation, company culture and the fiscal impact.

The argument about saving money on real estate has been at the forefront since the very first lockdowns. Why pay for pricey office space when your employees can happily work from home? First, happiness and work typically do not go hand-in-hand. While many can tolerate work, we are after-all, being paid to do it for a reason. Too much happiness in employees would seem to be a ridiculous notion except that it probable equates to less productivity. Its the ugly “P” word that remote workers around the globe are hate to hear. But think of it this way, would a professional athlete compete as hard if they performed in their pajamas or walked their dog during a timeout? While not 100% applicable, this is what many have been doing for the past 2 years. Fun yes. Productive, no. So while this makes for happy employees, employers are not blind to this and why most have not committed to any permanent solution. The “simple” fiscal aspect of real estate turns out to be far more complicated and while offices may be more inclined to seek out more suburban locations, the idea that office buildings will collect dust forever is far fetched. There simply is no better way to get the most productivity out of an employee than getting them to prove themselves in the flesh, not by Zoom.

This brings me to my next point and that most productivity is not easily quantified. At home, work may be getting done, but to what extent? Is a sunny day and access to the yard cutting short a report or rushing data entry? How many corners were cut so that employees have time to clean there kitchen floor? Going even further, is wearing Air Pods and renovating a home kitchen considered to be productive? This is happening, we all know it! Now comes the question as to what employees would be doing with that time if they were in the office. Surfing the web, texting and daydreaming are all legitimate excuses but they would still be in the office in work clothes with their focus primarily on work. If we want to throw a generalized percentage on lack of productivity, we could say that 50% is lost when remote and 30% lost in the office. Even in this scenario which is by no means scientific, there is a 20% increase but having employees in the office. Whatever the percentage, it would be hard for most to argue otherwise, especially when their work is not quantifiable. Furthermore, how can remote workers justify the quality of their work? How much better could a company function if employees were better focused? Again, the bottom line is far more complicated that simply removing the commute from your teams headaches. I am not disputing the benefits of remote work, but instead, preparing many for the inevitable.

The last point I want to emphasize when debating the merits of remote work is being careful to not “remotely work” yourself out of a job. If your role is so easily completed from your living room, isn’t altogether possible that your role is unnecessary? How many jobs are overstaffed or excessive in hors and more suitable for part-time employment? Perhaps reducing real estate is not to permit more remote work but rather consolidate wastefulness. If your currently happy at home, skating by easily during the pandemic, you should consider the implications. Collecting an easy paycheck should be concerning. My advice to my employees and friends is to justify your importance regularly. Do not let days go by without communicating or relying on texts. Pick up the phone, schedule a video call or stop by the office in person to keep yourself sharp and let the world know you exist! Much of life is a popularity contest and after establishing how hard it is to quantify your productivity, reminding people of your engagement and role is not a bad thing. You need to have value in order to succeed.

This brings up the next phase of working which could very well involve the metaverse or working in virtual reality. While I a see the benefits of this including bringing some social interaction back to remote work, we are not there yet. Technology is advancing incredibly quickly and working remotely via a virtual headset may be closer than we think, but it still needs time. The idea of becoming an animation in a virtual world is very difficult for many to comprehend. COVID-19 may have sped this up and redirected new focus to alternate platforms to perform business, it also could lead to unintended consequences. Less jobs, pay and benefits could be the unintended outcome to better bottom lines using technology. Jobs could easily be created overseas where pay is less and loyalty from both employee and employer could become nonexistent.

Ultimately, the point I am pushing is based on the proverb that states to be careful of what you wish for. Yes, remote work is awesome for most and our pets love us for it. However, the deciding factor on where we go from here has been and will always be defined by profits. Regardless of the political climate and fanciful ideas of distributing wealth, don’t be fooled, politicians, investors and other power players will always want to protect and maintain their wealth and to think that your remote work happiness fits into that plan is shortsighted. This isn’t meant to be negative but more so a reminder of how the world works and despite the silver linings of this extended pandemic, we need to embrace and justify our roles. We need to return to normality even if it is slightly altered from the past. Perhaps hybrid schedules will become permanent and for some, remote work. Bear in mind, physical retail is disappearing because there is a readily available, cost saving alternative waiting to takes its place. Until this is the case for most employers, enjoy your time at home now and prepare yourself to the commute once again, at least until the metaverse is up and running!

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