Remote meeting. Man working from home during coronavirus or COVID-19 quarantine, remote office concept. Young businessman, manager in front of monitor during online conference with colleagues and team.

Having reached the one year anniversary of the first lockdown here in Alberta, no one could have anticipated the total upheaval to the workplace many of us experienced in 2020 — the transition to remote work, a new reliance on technology, persistent pressures on employee mental health and well-being, child care concerns — this past year was a roller coaster of crisis management for organizations, and it’s leaders.

With a year of living in a coronavirus world now behind us, and what appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel, employers and employees are looking at the remainder of  2021 with one question: What will work be like the rest of this year?

Remote work is not an entirely new concept; it’s been there for quite some time. A 2019 Gartner survey suggests that the number of employees working remotely at least once a week had increased by 400% from 2010-2019. However, the remote work trend accelerated to unparalleled levels due to the coronavirus pandemic when many businesses had to go remote or close.

Around the world, the tech giants lead the way, following the directives from authorities to contain the spread. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Twitter asked most of their employees to work from their homes.

For some companies the transition was seamless, for many others that are not multi-billion dollar tech giants, it was a  significant struggle to deal with the logistics of so many necessary changes in such a short period of time.

Before we dive into the future of the remote workforce, let’s use this past year to understand some of the benefits of remote work and then uncover some of the challenges of working remotely.

Benefits of Remote Work:

Avoid the Tedious Commute: Nobody likes to get stuck in hour-long traffic and bear the endless car honks. With remote work, you can reduce commute stress, which increases your efficiency.

Set up your Office Wherever you Like: Work from your home or anywhere else you like wearing pajamas or shorts. You are free to set up your virtual office near the coasts of Hawaii or on the mountains.

Global Opportunities: There are no boundaries in remote work. If a staff member wants to move to the other side of Canada, they can still stay on as an employee and work remotely rather than losing them. Remote setup also allows companies to tap into new talent pools and perform remote hiring of talent from anywhere across Canada or possible the world without worrying about the relocation package.

High Productivity: Working from your home gives your mental peace. No commute to work, work-life balance, and healthy food provide an employee with all the energy he needs to stay focused and productive.

Do you know? A recent Canadian study stated that 82% of the new 2020 remote workers demonstrated  that they were more productive while working remotely than in the office.

Flexible Work Hours: A significant advantage of remote work is fewer restrictions on work hours. You can work from home during the time you feel the most productive. You can also take breaks to stay refreshed during work hours.

Challenges of Remote Work

Communication: Communication between the teams can be a challenge in remote working. This is where technology plays a vital role. Using productivity or work from home apps can reduce your resistance to communication.

Distractions: It becomes easy to give in to distractions when you are working from home. Doing daily chores, washing dishes, social media, and watching your favorite TV shows can eventually eat up your time. The secret to staying focused while working remotely is building a schedule and sticking to it.

Overwork: Well, it turns out you save much time in remote working only if you manage your time well. Otherwise, procrastination can crawl up in your routine, and you may have to work extra hours to catch the deadlines. In fact, 23% of the remote workers agreed to work more than they would work on-site.

Insufficient Technology Infrastructure:  Many companies were caught in a difficult predicament in March of 2020.  They would require significant investment in IT Infrastructure to enable their company to shift to remote work, but they also were needed to be very cashflow conscious with so much economic uncertainty swirling around us.  Companies that were already in technological debt prior to covid having not sufficiently invested in the IT infrastructure over the years were hit particularly hard.

Security Risk – The sudden shift to remote work prompted many organizations to rapidly make significant new investments and changes in their IT systems and infrastructure in early 2020.  With the early emphasis on “achieving remote work functionality”, security was often pushed to the background as an afterthought.  For many companies, the security risks created in the transition process have not been addressed in many places. Enabling a remote workforce, and securing a remote workforce requires a very different mindset and requirements.

After understanding the benefits and Challenges of remote working, these questions pops up:

  • Is remote work here to stay?
  • What are the remote work trends of 2021?
  • In short, what will be the future of remote work?

To answer this, let’s look at some emerging remote work trends and how they will affect the businesses.

1. Flexible Work Hours will be a Preference.

People have realized that it is not just about flexibility of WHERE they work, but also WHEN they work.   

Companies will need to implement policies and better tools to manage projects, communication, collaboration not just for employees working in different locations, but in many cases on different work schedules.

2. Evolution in Human Resources

Like remote work, automation is the future. With companies going remote, the whole hiring process will continue to shift more virtual. Technology will play a significant role in recruiting because it can increase the productivity of the HR department.

3. Collaboration will Save Us

The success of remote work depends on the effectiveness of communication and collaboration. These are ten times more important if you’re working remotely or managing a remote team.

Thus, it will be crucial to create a digital version of meeting rooms and coffee space where team members can interact and discuss. That’s why we have seen massive growth in users of conferencing tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack, etc., during the pandemic.

4. The Crucial Role of Cybersecurity

Remote means everything on the internet. Be it communication, collaboration, hiring, and operations; the whole system lives on the cloud. Hijack of a company’s sensitive data during transit to the server can incur huge losses to companies.

That’s why the security of online data becomes the utmost priority of any organization. Thankfully, organizations are recognizing the risk and investing heavily in the cybersecurity infrastructure.

5. Work-Life Balance

Mental health is becoming a priority now. Still, 43% of the remote employees are likely to work more than a standard 40 hour per week system. (to prove they can be productive working remotely) For companies, this is a valuable thing as more hours means more tasks getting done. But for employees, an inefficient system.

The reason for that stat is the failure to balance life and work. When you work from home, boundaries between the professional and personal world seems to blur.

With the remote work trend of 2021, employees would take this wake-up call sincerely. For companies, it means equipping systems to measure an employee’s output, such as a time tracking system for remote workers, similar to an on-site arrangement.

6. Gen Z will Carry on Remote Work Trend

Generation Z has already joined the global workforce. They are the generation who have grown up with innovative technology around them. Gen Z has been observing the latest technology trend while learning from the millennials. It turns out; Gen Z has high expectations and demand from the companies.

The benefits that the millennials had are now a requisite for the Gen Z workforce. And remote work is one of them. That’s why more than 60% of the Gen Z workers prioritize remote work and getting feedback from their managers. For companies, this means that their policies will get affected by how the new generation of workers approach work.

8. Workforce Diversification:

Most of us are already familiar with gender inequalities at the workplace. Remote work trends 2021 makes this scenario even more inadequate.

In the 21st century, companies will finally realize what the women workforce can achieve in business with the widespread remote work culture. We will witness companies hiring a diverse workforce to create an inclusive culture. It will further allow breaking the barrier of biases of gender, race, ethnicity, and orientation.

So to Answer the Question, Yes Remote Work is Here to Stay in 2021 and Beyond

The pandemic has dramatically accelerated the evolution of the business landscape. Now, it’s more than just about the essential things. The ongoing drift towards the implementation of permanent remote work in some variation is more than just a sprint, it’s a marathon for the future.

Companies need to accept it and identify how to make it best work for them. Companies, as well as employees, would have to keep pace with the ever-changing remote work landscape. if companies decide to fully switch back to on-site work culture, they should be ready to have strong reasons for the decision. For many companies it will be a challenge to attract and retain employees in the future without some degree of remote work environment.

That is not to say that a full 5 day a week fully remote workforce post pandemic is going to remain the standard.  The balance will be unique to each industry and company.  The challenge will be how to strike the balance between company needs and employee needs.