Much has been made over the fact that Covid-19, disruptive and tragic as it has been for the world, also happened to usher in the age of remote work.
Many employees had been clamoring for the greater flexibility and lower costs that such arrangements would provide in theory. And after the pandemic forced their hand, employers often found that such benefits actually work both ways.
Yet things aren’t so clear-cut everywhere you look.
Companies like Twitter have committed to allowing their people to work from home permanently. Others have completely discarded remote working policies or never adopted them in the first place. In between, there are growing calls for workplaces to settle on some form of hybrid arrangement.
There’s no doubt that remote work is here to stay. Virtual collaboration or the ability to communicate and navigate human relationships solely through a technological interface will be vital in the future.
But the extent to which that matters to a specific company will always come down to the issue of culture.
A look at demographics
As a thought experiment, envision yourself in 2019, pre-Covid. Someone tells you that in 2020, many companies will be adopting remote work wholesale for at least a year. Who do you think would make the transition most easily, and who’d struggle to adapt?
For most people, the easy assumption would be that younger generations, being digital natives, would handle the situation smoothly. Older employees, with less tech know-how and a general resistance towards change, would probably be yearning for a quick return to the office.
In reality, organizations have now had more than a year of experience grappling with the pandemic while managing distributed teams. Your anecdotal evidence might already belie that initial assumption. The statistics certainly do.
Demographic evidence shows that Gen Z is the least productive and most easily distracted when working from home. They are also the most negatively impacted by missing out on social interactions that can enrich their networks, create mentoring opportunities, and further their professional development.
By contrast, Gen X and older millennials are more established in their careers. With more working experience under their belts, they can be productive even without the office structure, and their professional networks and finances are more secure.
Inequality in remote work
The demographic divide is just one example showing how our assumptions about remote work can be unfounded. It also highlights the fact that not everyone is equally suited to such arrangements.
In a more extensive study of different criteria that could affect our ability to work from home, the lines of inequality stand out far more clearly.
Holders of a bachelor’s degree are rated more than twice as capable of working remotely than those with some or no college education.
Since education largely influences what sort of jobs you can land, it’s no surprise that these differences extend occupationally. White-collar workers can take their jobs online more often compared to blue-collar workers.
And the implication is that disadvantaged groups will find it more difficult to succeed at remote work if their employer even offers them the chance.
Moreover, the pandemic has shown us that remote work, downsizing, and automation often go together. This puts certain categories of jobs at risk and further threatens demographics that are over-represented in such jobs: for instance, women as secretaries or retail workers.
The culture question
When companies consider their remote working policies in a post-Covid future, they often think in terms of capability.
How much will it cost to roll out the necessary equipment? Do our people have the skills needed? If not, how readily can they be trained? Can productivity be maintained or even improved?
Those things matter, but the real question is always about your company culture or how you do things.
Does your company value equality and diversity? Then consider how the impact of inequality will inevitably lead to minorities being under-represented in positions that can work remotely.
Does the organization pride itself on being a place where young talent can flourish and take the next step? Shifting the balance towards remote work can actually undermine that vision and leave young professionals in career limbo.
And perhaps even more ominously, remote workers tend to be disconnected from company culture. They lose sight of what the entire organization stands for, which can lead to disengagement, lower quality standards, and loss of reputation.
Moving forward, the workforce knows that the option to work remotely is out there. Does that mean changing the way you do things? To what extent and for whom you make those changes will depend on where you stand on the issue of culture.