We are experiencing the biggest remote work experiment
in history – but many are beginning to imagine life after
lockdown. Amid unprecedented global job losses,
concerns about transport infrastructure and the continuing
need for workplace social distancing, governments are
launching back-to-work plans.
Here are five key trends that will shape the future of how
1. Commuting will change forever
We might miss the social interaction of the office, but
most don’t miss commuting. This was one of the key
findings in my four-year remote work study.
During the pandemic, US commute times reached record
levels and most UK workers spent more than a year of
their lives travelling to and from work. People tell me that
a hybrid strategy of working from home two days a week,
is one ideal scenario.
Those eager to go back to the office will have to wait.
Many will need to work from home for weeks or months to
come. The situation is fluid, but governments are drawing
up plans for workers to stagger working times, so public
transport is not overwhelmed.
The genie is out of the bottle, and commuting is not going
back to how it was.
2. Bad email etiquette won’t be tolerated
Workplace communication is rapidly transforming and
email is a case in point. More than ever, creating a clear
separation between work and leisure time is vital.
Research repeatedly shows that sending out-of-hours
emails is not only bad etiquette, but creates a coercive
work culture that requires people to be available 24/7.
Social scientists argue this turns us into
worker/smartphone hybrids and causes stress and
burnout. Expecting quick answers to email is increasingly
seen as bullying.
Many now realize that colleagues might need to work
flexibly due to caring responsibilities. Lockdown has
encouraged a new acceptance of flexibility. But this
shouldn’t extend to having a culture that expects people
to be available all the time.
3. Video calls will be limited
Zoom calls will remain part of our lives, but we will
change and adapt how we use them. Research shows
that video calls are more draining and tiring than in-person meetings.
While video calls are appropriate for some meetings, we
don’t need to use them for all our communication.
Research suggests many are shifting back to phone calls, which as one manager explained to me “feels more
spontaneous and flows better.”
4. More coworking spaces will emerge
Workers forced to continue working from cramped living
spaces are desperate for alternatives. When lockdown
lifts they will turn to the cafes and coworking spaces that
are still in business. Before COVID-19 hit, coworking
spaces were projected to increase more than 40% worldwide.
The paradox of remote working is that people crave the
flexibility but know that being around others boosts
productivity. My research shows that over time remote
workers crave the physical closeness that comes with just
being alongside other people. It’s exactly why in 2017
IBM pulled many employees back into the office, despite
having previously published a 2014 white paper in support of remote working.
Local coworking spaces, as opposed to big investor-funded brands such as WeWork, will do well. Independent
coworking spaces in some areas were thriving before
COVID-19, they may become more mainstream if they
5. Could we become part-time digital nomads?
Digital nomads are extreme remote workers that post
Instagram stories from exotic locations. Right now, that
lifestyle seems unrelatable, impossible, and to many, unethical.
Nonetheless, many decently paid workers in New York,
London and Paris are stuck in uncomfortably small flats,
dreaming of escape from lockdown.
For now, remote working from different locations is not a viable option. But the allure of relocating to a picturesque
location remains – and Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBnB, is
banking on it. He sees COVID-19 as a business
opportunity and told Bloomberg: “People are realizing
they can work remote … that’s a huge opportunity.”
Not all will agree, it could cause long-term sustainability
issues, and many will not have this privilege.
Important disclosure information
Authors Dave Cook
PhD Researcher, Anthropology, UCL
Disclosure Statement Dave Cook does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive
funding from any company or organization that would benefit
from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations
beyond their academic appointment.
Partner University College London provides funding as a founding
partner of The Conversation UK.
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