Remote Work in 2021: Is it Foolish to Think it’s Here to Stay?
It’s been almost one year since businesses around the world shut their office doors and sent employees home to bake banana bread and hop on zoom calls—and with most people still working from their couch, everyone is wondering if they’ll ever get called back to the office or if PJ’s will become a forever-staple in their work wardrobe.
Even for those of us saying “join the club” when the WFH memes hit the internet, what could a new, more remote-friendly business landscape look like for us as location-dependent employees and freelancers?
Remote Trends Pre-Pandemic
COVID certainly caused its fair share of “unprecedented” work moments, but it didn’t exactly introduce the concept of working remotely. According to the 2018 Global Workplace Analytics by American Community Service (ACS), nearly 5 million U.S. employees (3.6% of the country’s working population) were already plugged in remotely at least half-time, and the WFH trend was already on the rise, growing 173% from 2005 to 2019.
To no one’s surprise, the survey also showed that an overwhelming majority of employees would prefer to WFH at least some of the time. Some respondents said they would switch jobs for schedule flexibility, and more than a third would even take a pay cut just to have more schedule flexibility and location freedom. That’s a serious demand.
Still, even though most people were dreaming of escaping the office, those who were actually making it happen on a more regular basis pre-COVID accounted for less than 4% of the U.S. working population, with full-time remote workers making up an even smaller number. The truth was, with the exception of a handful of businesses who embraced remote capabilities, most companies were too unsure what a robust WFH policy would look like.
COVID: The Big Push
Sometimes, the best way to adapt is to jump in headfirst—and sometimes, the only way we’ll jump is if we’re pushed. The 2020 pandemic was like a giant shove for companies who were still teetering on WFH policies.
As the virus made its way across the globe, businesses were forced to quickly react to shelter-in-place orders and find ways to get their teams up and running while keeping employees safe, separate, and at home. With the added pressure, even the most traditional companies were able to quickly piece together solutions and transition from in-person to fully-remote almost overnight.
Now, almost a year in, and more than 56% of U.S. employees are working remotely at least part of the time, with 40% of those teams operating 100%-remote (Upwork’s Economist Report: Future Workforce, 2020).
Though there were undoubtedly some hiccups along the way for most companies (and some memorable Zoom bloopers), a large majority of managers surveyed by Upwork said that things had eventually smoothed out and were working considerably better. They even cited some unexpected benefits, such as:
- Reduction of non-essential meetings
- Increased schedule flexibility
- No commute
- Fewer distractions
- Greater autonomy
Plus, remote work can lower costs for both the employee and the employer. It even has some environmental incentives, such as a reduction in commute-related carbon emissions.
Many organizations are now viewing these “temporary solutions” as long-term strategic benefits that could help their business save money, increase employee retention, and operate more effectively.
What to Expect For The Future of Remote Work
Remote work was already on the rise, but now that systems are in place and businesses know that these models work, the trend has proliferated. Needless to say, after almost a year of successful WFH stories, it will be hard to reconvince the working world that the 9-5 is the only way to go.
Upwork (along with several other survey sources) estimates that about half of the U.S. workforce is still clocking a virtual time clock nearly a year after COVID began its rounds. They also predict that more than a quarter of employees will remain fully remote by this time next year, and an estimated 36 million U.S. employees will be working remotely by 2025, a drastic jump from the previously predicted 16.8 million.
These stats don’t necessarily mean everyone will become globe-trotting digital nomads just yet—though an expected uptick in freelancer hiring will make those dreams more accessible to more people.
Many offices are discussing hybrid schedules, which will involve some team members working 100%-remote and others working some days in the office and some days from home. Mixed work schedules mean people will have more freedom to work from home at least some days while still having a shared physical space for tasks and meetings that require face-to-face interactions or access to tools and equipment that may be too difficult or costly to set-up at home.
Employees can also expect to share a virtual space with more freelancers, as hiring managers become more open with the idea of hiring remote independent workers to help manage workloads and offer expertise.
What are your remote work plans?
Lots of people got pushed into working from home this past year, but many were already working toward (or at least hoping for) the freedom of remote work. How has your experience been as a remote worker? Do you think you’ll ever return to the office? And what are your plans/hopes for the future of remote work? Drop a comment below and tell us your story!
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