During the years running up to 2020, the number of people working from home steadily increased by a couple of percentage points from year to year. The changes were gradual at first, but over time, they soon added up. Data suggest that around 2 percent of people worked from home some of the time at the start of the century. By 2015, it was up to about 5 percent.
After COVID-19, though, we’re likely to see a step-change in remote working practices. Companies are discovering that there isn’t much point investing in costly offices when they can get the same productivity out of their workforces from home. Business telephone systems and cloud software mean that the need for a physical office is technologically obsolete. It’s no longer strictly necessary.
Many bosses are discovering something exciting. They’re finding out that the purpose of the office is primarily sociological. People “go to work,” they believe, because of the intrinsic importance of being in physical proximity to their colleagues.
Again, though, current working practices are throwing that theory into doubt. It’s no longer apparent whether we need to be physically close to each other, so long as we can communicate convincingly and helpfully.
Just look at what has happened to the popularity of Zoom over the last few months. We’ve seen the video conferencing app’s popularity skyrocket as people discover that they can communicate with each other just fine using digital mediums.
The work-from-home phenomenon is also turning heads for other reasons. Bosses are starting to realize that it might offer productivity benefits.
The first of these comes down to the problem of commuting. For the last hundred years or so, employers have effectively been paying for the commute. And, interestingly, in ways that are not always obvious. Not only do higher wages compensate workers for the effort of traveling to work on the train, but employers must also cover the costs of exhaustion and burnout. Traveling is a stressful experience, and it can affect the amount that a person can get done during the day.
Interruptions are also another problem in the office. You can have somebody busily working away on a project, only for a colleague to waltz over to their desk to talk about the weather. This behavior stops when colleagues must work from home. Notifications might still be a problem, but remember, they’re an issue in the office anyway. Nothing changes there.
Several companies are already experimenting with working from home indefinitely when the government lifts the lockdown. Insurance companies, for instance, don’t see the point in renting out expensive high-rise buildings when their brokers can essentially perform all their duties from home. Even Facebook says that it is considering moving the bulk of its workforce off-campus for the foreseeable future to protect them from pandemics, including the current one.
The number of people working from home, therefore, could hit fifty percent in the developed world. That represents a significant change, new challenges, and opportunities.