As a dreadful 2020 winds to an end and we prepare to usher in 2021, I find myself thinking what a year like this, the biggest experiment in remote working in human history, has taught us, and how it will affect us in the short term, during the next 12 months.
What will the work be like next year? I guess that depends on who you work for. The pandemic has forced many companies to modernize and to realize that there are other ways to work, but that won’t necessarily translate into lasting change. Unfortunately, only some companies are seriously looking at what they can learn from the pandemic, while many others are desperately hoping they can return to doing things the way they did before all this mess.
As of February 2020, only 3.4% of Americans, a grand total of 4.7 million people, worked from home. Over the course of the year, that number grew to 42%. Now, another survey states that 65% would like to continue working remotely full time after the pandemic, while 31% would prefer some form of hybrid format. Most people have found that they can perform many of their tasks from home, and don’t want to go back to working like before.
The pandemic has also made many of us more tech savvy: until last February, aside from Skype or Facetime calls to friends and family, few people knew anything about video conferencing software, and they needed to use it they would first call the IT department. Now, many of us have four or five of these programs installed — even though Zoom, which has made Eric Yuan one of the richest people in the world, still has the best latency — and manage them well enough, even if they lack the skills or resources to avoid meeting or presentation from being a torture session. Most of us still have a lot to learn about video conferencing, and this is a communication genre that is evolving very quickly. In addition, we have been buying computers like there were no tomorrow, reflecting the widespread need to improve our working conditions with the right tools.
What will happen in 2021? Basically, many of the things we did under duress in 2020 will become normal. Working from home won’t be obligatory, but neither will going to an office. The sensible thing would be a transition to hybrid working models, with increasingly flexible arrangements that allow employee and employer to benefit from the best of both worlds, and thus avoid the tendency to lose our creativity, which is what happens when we spend too much time at home.
Although 2021 will be very different to 2020, we won’t see those changes immediately. To begin with, companies need to understand that we’re not out of the woods yet, and that no matter how many people are vaccinated in the coming months, acting as if the situation had already normalized would be irresponsible, and show a lack of respect for employees. But as the year progresses and the restrictions are eased and the number of new infections falls, 2021 could be the year when we really learn to work, and under normal conditions.
Working in a hybrid format as the pandemic subsides, will have a number of obvious advantages: firstly, we will have many more resources at our disposal. Many companies are increasingly aware of the advantages of this kind of approach, and are even encouraging them by creating teams to support employees working from home. In addition, working remotely will become much more natural as we learn how to manage our time better, creating a clear line between our personal and professional lives.
Finally, rationalizing this type of arrangement will allow many workers, given the opportunity to work regularly from home and only go into the office occasionally, to rethink about where they live, perhaps taking advantage to move to cheaper, more comfortable or more pleasant places. These are decisions that, in many cases, may involve major savings, coupled with lower transportation costs.
In short, 2021 should be the year when we normalize things that, during 2020, we were obliged to do. From here on in, it will be employers who decide whether to be proactive and learn from the experience of the last year, or be reactive and return to the past. In countries where labor supply and demand is reasonably balanced, this will surely affect the opportunities of organizations to attract and retain talent. In countries with high unemployment, it will just be another problem yet to be solved.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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