The Future of Remote Work
A year into the pandemic, many companies are looking to make remote work permanent. While huge uncertainty remains around who will be returning to the office and when, remote work is likely to become a permanent arrangement for many companies and employees.
But what can we expect? Many remote workers don’t want to return to the office, and 30% have indicated they will switch jobs if ordered to do so. Companies have realized they can save significant amounts of money reducing or even eliminating office space, and remote work is also seen as a potential job benefit that can both make a company more attractive to work for and retain current employees.
The future of remote work is likely less a question of whether it will remain, but for whom and under what circumstances. Network theory, which looks at both networks as a whole and the actors or nodes within, can provide some guidance when it comes to predicting what some of the likeliest scenarios will look like.
First, location will still matter. There are tremendous benefits to collocating industries, services and people. Paul Krugman won a Nobel Prize for his theory explaining why similar economic activities end up concentrated in the same locations, and why places like Silicon Valley exist in the first place. These patterns are evident in network theory as well. The tremendous benefits of being able to draw on an established, known talent pool, and collocated resources, markets and supply chains means that the trend toward geographic consolidation for industries is likely to persist.
Second, it’s important to look not just at the network as a whole but also the unique characteristics of the nodes themselves. In network theory, distinct attributes arise from the unique ways in which people are positioned relationally to each other. Depending on where and how they are embedded in the network, some people are better positioned to disseminate information, influence others, or connect others who wouldn’t otherwise be connected. This suggests that decisions around remote work should consider the roles and needs of each job and not just industry type or company-wide policies. Virtual networking and deal making have certainly been occurring, but those in forward facing jobs like sales and upper management may be especially likely to be returning to the office either full or part time.
Connectivity matters in both networks and the office. It’s worth noting that those employees willing to locate near or even within commuting distance may have an advantage: remote workers are less visible, and in one study those working from home, while more productive, were less likely to be offered a promotion. Particularly for new hires and workers just getting started in their careers, the draw backs of remote work may be especially detrimental. We know from studies looking at gender and race that access to robust informal networks offer important opportunities for women and people of color when it comes to advancing in the workplace.
The value of being nearby is born out in much of the housing data that shows that particularly in the bay area, many moves were to adjacent counties and suburbs rather than out of state. Because there will likely still be career advantages for being collocated or at least proximate to the office or industry center, most remote work is likely going to mean moving outside a commute shed, but not necessarily to far flung locals. The intricacies of tax law and working across state boundaries and time zones further reinforces this trend.
Finally, remote work will likely emerge as a tool for staff retention, especially those in jobs where it is difficult and expensive to retain people. In many cases, remote work may be better described as flex work. Some employees may never return to the physical office, but for many other companies hybrid schedules or a in person attendance a few days a month may become the norm. Opportunities to experiment with alternative schedules, four day work weeks, or time shifting to accommodate work life balance may also serve as recruiting tools.
Of course, attitudes toward remote work are likely to change over time. Yahoo famously reversed previous work from home policies (to significant outcry). There is concern that remote work will bring downward pressure on wages since talent can be pulled from lower cost of living areas, and high salaries provided to offset expensive local housing and cost of living adjustments may no longer be as justified. So far, many companies have indicated their pay scales won’t change, but an economic downturn could change that.
Like any network, the answer of what remote work is likely to look like will shift over time. And you can expect the changes to ripple across not just individual companies but the workforce itself.