Remote work was on the rise long before the COVID pandemic hit. The trend was already towards greater flexibility and mobility in how we do our jobs. So, it’s no big surprise that there are some obvious short-term changes in the workplace: more hybrid work teams, ubiquitous webcams (along with the accompanying “Zoom fatigue”) and confusion about what the office should look like being at the top of the list.
But what about the longer-term, big picture questions that will arise from this massive change in what it means to “go to work”? We are beginning to get glimpses of the future, and it’s a fool’s game to claim we know exactly what’s going to happen, there are at least some questions that will be asked.
Here are a few of the issues that will need to be addressed in the next few years. Note that, like most change, these are neither good nor bad in themselves, but how we think about and address them will determine if it’s a blessing or a curse. And there will be days it feels like both…
The freedom to work anywhere will raise as many questions as answers.
There are some obvious positives. Many states in the US are already viewing remote work as the solution for small, rural communities that have seen a drain of young people for over six decades. With the rise of remote work, young families can move where housing is cheaper and they are close to family. People can live wherever they want, including places where the weather is better or the taxes are lower. For many companies, this will create a bureaucratic nightmare of tax rates, and regional legislation. Networking opportunities may also be limited.
There are social and psychological implications.
For the last hundred years or so, we became an increasingly urban society. Yes, this includes “where” we work, but also with whom. Once people began leaving the home to make a living, it changed where we get our social interaction. Almost two-thirds of our social interaction in a week comes from the workplace. Remote work changes, and definitely limits, the kind, number, and quality of interactions . For a society where loneliness and feelings of isolation were already rampant, what will the mental-health implications of this be? On one hand, it can help create stronger family and local bonds. On the other hand, that can create its own problems (see the Hatfields and McCoys, or the Medicis against pretty much everyone else in Florence).
Dating and who we socialize with will change forever.
This is already happening. In the 1980s, over a third of long-term relationships began in the workplace (HR people are hyperventilating, but it was true). Now at least that many marriages and long-term romances begin online. But moving from a virtual relationship to a true physical and deep emotional one requires getting together at some point. What happens when the only people you interact with are in another time zone?
There are gargantuan societal implications.
In urban areas, nearly forty percent of jobs support those who work in those areas, even if they then go home to the suburbs at night. Restaurants, janitorial services, deliveries conference and event services, the arts, the list goes on and on. Those jobs require being where the work (and a critical mass of people) is, and those who do those jobs are often in lower-wage jobs. If people don’t come into the city in the same numbers, what happens to those jobs? And how do you help a huge population of people shift their skill set? What happens to the infrastructure of large cities? Economically what are the implications? What about cars, highways and transportation, if people aren’t moving around as much?
The current modern workplace has created (however imperfectly) a diverse workplace. Will that last?
On the one hand, the fact that people will have more flexibility and opportunity for work-life balance, will spend less on housing and transportation, and don’t need to live within an easy drive of corporate headquarters should mean more opportunity for women, the disabled, and other groups that have been marginalized. Great strides are being made. But a lot of that progress came from people interacting through necessity. One thing we’ve learned during the pandemic is that as people increasingly choose who they receive their news from, who they choose to interact with, and their social circle shrinks, there is every chance society becomes more fractured as people become more insular.
The Renaissance didn’t happen in small villages or country estates.
Throughout history in every corner of the world, great innovation in the arts, science, technology and business came as a result of people crowding together and mixing socially. Florence had a lot of artists who all knew each other and interacted. Detroit had multiple car companies whose engineers and workers socialized and cross-pollinated ideas, stole employees from each other, and competed for the best and brightest, giving rise to the auto industry and all its unforeseen impact. Same with Silicon Valley and the start-up culture in cities like Prague and Kiev. Where will true innovation and collaboration come from when people in similar industries or with similar ambitions have less opportunity to meet and interact?
The long-term effect of these changes will be hard to monitor, and almost impossible to anticipate accurately. Just as the industrial revolution had ripple effects throughout society, so will this new way of working. To make wise choices and adjustments that have positive results for the greatest number of people, we will need to be aware and informed.
Virtual LeaderCon is just around the corner, and once again we’re hosting some of the world’s greatest leadership minds. This is a great opportunity for you to increase your awareness and knowledge and equip yourself to confidently move forward to the future of work. Learn more and save your spot today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.