Now that many organizations around the world have shifted to 100% remote work in response to recent events, business leaders and IT teams are starting to think about the longer-term future. Once we return to a place of relative health and stability, what will work look like on a day-to-day basis? Which newly adopted processes and tech tools will stick, and which old ways will we rush back to?
In a broad sense, everyone seems to agree that remote work is going to play a bigger role in hiring, operations, and culture in the future than it did before. But it’s not yet clear what that will look like in practice. Here are our thoughts on how organizations might approach some of the most pressing questions about the future of remote work.
Is 100% Remote Work the New Normal?
People are starting to wonder whether the recent shift to all remote work will become permanent, at least in industries where that’s physically possible. Some companies had begun to embrace remote culture even before the crisis, and those that had resisted it are now finding ways to get by — and even thrive — with their employees working from home. Still, we think the short answer to this question, with a few caveats and considerations, is no.
For some newer companies that were built from the ground up to be 100% remote, the benefits of that structure outweigh the costs. Fully remote organizations have unrestricted access to a global talent pool, with more freedom to find people who are the exact right fit for their mission and culture. Startups based in highly competitive labor markets may also be able to avoid competing directly with big-name enterprises by hiring remotely. Then there are obvious cost savings on office rent and upkeep, though we suspect that most successful remote companies would choose to invest those savings elsewhere to foster community and employee development.
As tempting as these benefits may sound, each organization is unique, and we can think of quite a few reasons why an organization that has invested in building a great office culture would rather not give that up in the long run. It comes down to camaraderie and collaboration: Something intangible happens when bright people gather around a whiteboard to solve a problem, or even just share a space while working on different parts of that problem independently. Former General Electric CIO Gary Reiner said it best in a recent interview with our own Greg Keller:
There will be more use of technology, but people are still going to want to and need to get together. There is the spontaneity of idea generation that comes when people are in the same place. That’s going to be hard to replicate, and everyone knows that.
Given the dueling benefits of remote recruiting and in-office collaboration, we think the future of remote work boils down to increased flexibility. We’ll see more organizations creating hybrid environments, with elastic infrastructure designed to better accommodate shifts toward one extreme or the other. More employees could enjoy the option of working remotely when they want to, while still coming into the office regularly for meetings and designated projects.
Which Remote Work Processes Will We Bring Back to the Office?
Even teams that would have preferred not to go remote are picking up useful lessons from the experience. One change that could translate back to the office comes out of the need to intentionally reimagine and reinforce collaborative workflows that once happened more organically: More teams are adopting the daily standup meeting format already embraced in the software engineering and development world.
In these brief meetings, team members update each other on their individual projects and progress and map how their objectives fit together. They receive direction from team leaders and project managers, and identify the right channels for support if needed. This meeting process results in increased clarity about the day’s goals, with greater focus on outcomes and less reliance on quick one-off conversations to keep things coordinated. Employees in a variety of fields are finding that this practice helps boost their productivity and sense of purpose, so we think it’ll stick around.
Enabling Remote Work — Which Tools Help, and Which Are Here to Stay?
The sudden shift to remote work has also driven adoption of new tech tools. Video conferencing applications, along with cloud app hubs like G Suite™ and Office 365™, have taken center stage. Organizations that hadn’t prioritized these technologies no longer have a choice, and we think they’ll continue to enjoy the benefits going forward. The current period of physical isolation could also increase demand for futuristic remote collaboration tools that incorporate VR and AR. It’s a good bet that increased usage of project management apps like Trello will be permanent, too.
In the interview mentioned above, Gary Reiner offers a useful way of thinking about how the current crisis could shape the trajectory of IT:
It’s never 100% one way or the other. Let’s say 30-40% of knowledge workers were already using technology to allow them to be as productive remotely as they were in the office. When things go back to normal, will it be 100%? No. Will it stay 30-40%? No. It’ll be somewhere in between. Split the difference and call it maybe 70% of people now.
We do think one change in IT will be nearly universal: the shift from on-prem infrastructure to cloud-based solutions. Even access control and device management, once thought of as inseparable from Windows Server® (e.g. Active Directory®), can now be administered across all major operating systems entirely from the cloud, with no need for remote user accounts to sync back to a server in the office. In this regard, the cloud infrastructure that has enabled a secure shift to remote work is likely to phase out the last remaining on-prem configurations, and office IT will start to look more like remote IT.
How to Keep a Mixed Remote/Office Environment Synchronized
For all their benefits, flexible remote work policies do present a few challenges in terms of communication. Companies that try a partial approach to remote work may find, for example, that employees who aren’t regularly in the office miss out on important updates and opportunities to contribute. The key to making a mixed environment work smoothly, then, is to treat critical processes as if everyone is still 100% remote. We’ll see teams achieve this with a combination of the strategies described above, using project management software, clear documentation, and regular stand ups to stay synchronized.
Interested in how current events are shaping other aspects of business and the culture around it? Read more of our predictions about the future of work.