One of the most important debates to play out in the business world over the next few years will be how much work will take place in company offices or remote locations. Some people are even arguing that the very idea of a company office is a relic that has outlived its usefulness.
It’s far too early to know for certain how the office vs. remote debate will finally resolve. But what we do know is that tools for remote collaboration are taking on much greater importance.
Lessons of Remote Work
The COVID-19 pandemic created, virtually overnight, a world in which nearly all office functions had to be performed remotely. Workers and managers struggled, improvised, and ultimately persevered in the short term. Going forward, business leaders will be judged in some measure by how well they can implement what they have learned during the shift to remote work.
The experiences of 2020-21 can be viewed as a great test, and early indications are that the experiment went well. According to a McKinsey report from the spring of 2021, nine out of ten organizations are planning on a hybrid future that will combine remote and on-site work going forward.
It won’t be easy, however. The McKinsey report also notes that many employees were feeling anxious, and there is a need to emphasize employee engagement. Productivity tended to increase in organizations that provided “micro-transactions” in which employees were able to discuss projects and share ideas.
One factor should perhaps be kept in mind: the remote workers of 2020-21 had usually been employees who had worked together in traditional offices. So relationships with colleagues had already been established, and factors such as team dynamics and company culture had been established in more ordinary circumstances. It will be interesting to see how purely remote teams will perform.
Types of Remote Tools
There is an amazing array of collaboration tools available for remote work. Some, such as Slack, were widely used for office communications before 2020. Zoom, which had existed for nearly a decade, became a defining feature of the pandemic. Other remote tools accommodate just about any need or niche. There are tools for training and creating knowledge bases; scheduling tasks; communication among teams; even tools for boosting employee morale by dispensing bonus gifts.
An article in the New York Times last summer indicates that tools for remote work have become a wave in startups. New companies are quickly forming to capitalize on the trend toward remote workplaces. Other companies are pivoting to tailor their existing products to accommodate an expected boom in remote work.
Beyond the traditional business functions of remote tools, some of the new startups are focusing on “presence” tools which replicate the experience of workers attending the same meeting.
The idea of workers being in sync as if in the same room is presented as a positive. But there is also a negative connotation that can be attached to remote work when what is essentially surveillance software is deployed.
A recent article in the Washington Post highlighted concerns from employees as well as privacy advocates. Some remote work software can log keystrokes and even listen to audio inside an employee’s house, so the potential for privacy violations is obvious. Some individuals quoted in the article felt “an extra layer of stress” from having to engage with monitoring software. Some were so offended they quit their jobs.
Will the Future Be Remote?
The move toward more remote work is no doubt happening, but there are those who fervently believe the traditional office will not survive into the future. The New Yorker recently published an interview with a technology entrepreneur, Chris Herd, who began a financial software company using a remote model in 2018. Herd was working out of necessity, as his location in northern Scotland limited the pool of talent he could draw from.
Herd’s experience in employing remote workers, not to mention an obvious business interest as he produces software for remote work, has made him a fervent advocate for a predominantly remote future. In a Twitter thread cited by the New Yorker, he predicts a future in which the most talented workers will have no interest in returning to traditional office life.
In Herd’s vision, businesses will evolve to a “remote first” strategy in which workers will gather once a month or so. A projected advantage of this scenario is that traveling at times to a common location could still cost less than maintaining a constantly used central office. And companies would be able to recruit talent from a much wider geographical area.
It’s conceivable that this great anticipated future of everyone working remotely will not pan out. But it seems apparent that remote working to some extent is here to stay. And the tools to make remote collaboration possible, as well as serious thoughts about how the tools will be deployed productively and ethically, will definitely be part of our future.