Work Enters the Twilight Zone

Photo credit: iStockphoto/tapui

So many people around the world have said that the explosion in remote working during the COVID-19 disruptions has been a game changer.

The current wisdom is that things will never be the same as they were. We will all be working a significant portion of the week from home offices, hot desking is finished as a concept, and businesses will stagger employees’ presence in the office over time blocks.

That may prove to be the case, but there may be some unintended consequences from what many believe will be a permanent paradigm shift. Some of these could be negative for both employers and employees.

Location a double-edged sword

For employees, for example, if they work from home they could work from anywhere. That sounds great and brings to mind beach locations where the chief problem is getting sand in the laptop.

One upshot, however, could be that remote working is the catalyst for a major opening up in the jobs market. Instead of hiring workers in a major city where the business is headquartered, what is there to stop organizations from hiring from anywhere in the world at lower cost?

This is going on already, on platforms like freelancer.com. But will more jobs be part of the gig economy, with regular employment as many have known it becoming a thing of the past?

If the company can hire you and you can work from the beach, then they will also be able to hire someone who does what you do, for a much cheaper rate, in another location.

So, the internationalization of the labor market might speed up the move to the gig economy, working to undermine wage rates even more and making tenure in a job a thing of the past.

This may not be immediate or a mass trend, but there is a good chance remote working will chip away at traditional forms of employment. 

The office museum

Already, major companies are embracing remote working. In the U.S., Twitter employees have been told they can work from home “forever” if they like.

In Australia, brewer Lion has 70% of its people working from home, even though critical staff need to be on site to brew the product.

It may not impact the number of office jobs, but will a wave of remote working create a concrete wilderness in the central business districts of our major cities?

Already, the Reserve Bank of Australia is warning of a collapse in the commercial property market as businesses understand that remote working means they can save significant amounts on the big CBD offices they thought they needed to maintain.

One knock-on effect from this will be to destroy many of the support businesses which rely on patronage from office workers. 

The cafes, restaurants, convenience stores, and clothing stores where office workers spend their money could struggle to survive, making voids out of previously bustling commercial quarters.

Then, from the employer point of view, there is the vexed question of workplace “culture.”

So much has been written in recent years about the right culture being a business differentiator and a driver for success. But can culture survive when so many people are working remotely?

Do we need to bump up against each other daily, congregate around water coolers and share time in the elevator with our coworkers to create the culture our employers need to drive success?

Anecdotally, many people are reporting they feel more productive in working from home because they are not wasting time on commuting or on the incidental banter that goes on in the office.

But now that they are working much more as individuals, does this mean they can work less effectively in a team?

A world of unknowns

These are rhetorical questions and the reality, as it plays out, will be a balance of all or some of these factors.

Already, it is clear that some people like working remotely while others don’t. 

Some employers are using new measurement tools, sometimes without employees knowing, to understand what they are actually doing with the time they are being paid to work.

Apparently, there is a yawning chasm between people. Some are highly efficient and conscientious, while others are wasting time and losing focus.

The challenge, post COVID-19, is to get this balance right: to downsize the office but not destroy it, to establish reasonable expectations and protocols for people working remotely, and to provide an office desk for those who want it.

So while the momentum for remote working is building, it is unlikely to create a new nirvana for either workers or employers.

The tricky part will be to make sure we don’t go too far with it and create an employment dystopia.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/tapui