The pandemic has caused major disruption to our working lives as quarantines, lockdowns, and self-imposed isolation have forced millions of people around the world to work remotely.
The virus has managed to break through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, setting in motion a structural shift. It has accelerated decisions to be made around a workplace topic that perhaps historically hasn’t been the biggest priority for employers.
The way we work has changed not only in the short term, but most likely indefinitely. But to what extent will remote work persist, and which sectors are more likely to see change?
The potential for remote work is determined by tasks and activities, not occupations
Remote work raises an array of challenges for both employees and employers. Businesses are trying to figure out how to engage and motivate staff and how to make their workspaces safe, while employees are trying to maintain their work / life balance and keeping productivity up in an isolated and sometimes distracting environment (did anyone say home-schooling?).
So which tasks can and cannot be done remotely?
More than 50% of the global workforce has little or no opportunity for remote work due to their jobs requiring collaborating with others, the need to use specialised equipment, tasks being limited to physical presence, or tasks are simply done when on the move, for example delivery services. These are the types of jobs that ultimately may risk being replaced by automation and digitisation.
Many physical or manual activities, as well as those that require use of fixed equipment, cannot be done remotely. For example:
- Providing care
- Operating machinery
- Using lab equipment
- Processing customer transactions in stores
There are tasks that can be done remotely, but may be done more effectively in person:
- Coaching and counselling
- Providing advice and feedback
- Building customer and colleague relationships
- Onboarding new employees
- Negotiating and making critical decisions
- Teaching and training
- Tasks that benefit from collaboration (innovation, problem solving, creativity)
Remote work potential is higher in advanced economies
McKinsey recently analysed the potential for remote work in nine countries; China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Spain, the UK, and the US. They analysed 2,000 activities in more than 800 occupations to identify which activities and occupations have the greatest potential for remote work. Not surprisingly, remote work potential is higher in advanced economies, thus risks accentuating inequalities at a social level.
In emerging economies, employment is skewed toward occupations that require physical and manual activities, for example agriculture and manufacturing. Although India is known globally for its high-tech and financial services industries, the vast majority of its workforce of c450 million is employed in occupations like retail services and agriculture that cannot be done remotely.
While the majority of the global workforce cannot work remotely, up to one quarter in advanced economies can do so 3-5 days a week.
While the majority of the global workforce cannot work remotely, up to one quarter in advanced economies can do so 3-5 days a week
The hybrid model and its effect on the economy
The mixed pattern of remote and physical activities of each occupation is likely to propel a hybrid working model, with employees working remotely and from an office during the workweek. Before the pandemic, employers expected 22% of their remote employees to work at least two days a week away from the office. This figure has now increased to 38% – almost double.
More than 20% of the global workforce could work remotely 3-5 days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office. If remote work took hold at that level, that would mean 3-4 times as many people working from home than before the pandemic, which would have a profound impact on the economy.
More people working remotely means fewer people commuting between home and work every day, or traveling to other locations for work. This will have significant economic consequences on transportation, fuel, auto sales, restaurants, retail, demand for commercial real estate, and other consumption patterns. Cities will no doubt need to be transformed, and it could also have adverse effects on national and local tax revenues.
Perhaps more importantly there are social aspects to take into consideration. Remote work may accentuate inequalities and create societal gaps and create psychological stress among employees.
Likewise, many remote workers are finding the lack of human interaction and interpersonal engagement increases stress and isolation and can affect productivity amongst staff. Management skills may need adapting to communicate effectively with their teams. Expansion of remote working will undoubtedly trigger questions about the need to examine some of the characteristics and personality traits most suited for remote workers of the future.
Similarly, women are disproportionately represented in industries most negatively affected by COVID-19. The female workforce in many economies is highly concentrated in sectors such as customer service, health care, and retail – which all have relatively low potential for remote work.
…women are disproportionately represented in industries most negatively affected by COVID-19
Does remote work increase productivity?
A question that has lacked a clear answer, and produced contradictive research and findings, is whether remote work has a positive impact on productivity or not.
Following the initial transition period during the first couple of months when the first national lockdown commenced, several studies show that employees perceive themselves as more productive as their experience and confidence working from home grew, and their employers provided appropriate support.
However, connectivity can be one of the key impediments to measuring productivity, such as poor internet connection, digital infrastructure, or employees not being able to use platforms, systems and applications as efficiently as they could in an office environment.
As remote working becomes more the norm, areas such as appraisals and performance management will no doubt need to be reviewed in light of the changes and the expectations of individuals who may have varying influences on their day to day work environment.
Industries with the highest potential
The overall potential for remote work is highly concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations, and geographies. The possibility for remote work depends on the mix of activities undertaken in each occupation and on their physical, spatial, and interpersonal context.
Sectors with the highest potential are:
- Business services
- Information technology
Looking at this list, it will be no surprise to reiterate the criticality for increased cybersecurity to protect businesses and individuals.
Remote work is highly likely to persist (and potentially become the norm) long after COVID-19 is conquered, but recent events have certainly sped up the evolution of remote work. To keep up and maintain productivity levels, businesses will need to adapt processes and policies – fast.
You might also be interested in our article ‘How have priorities shifted for CPOs ‘post’ Covid-19?’