There has been discussion for many years about how the nature of work would change as companies moved toward a more socially and environmentally sustainable world. Yet, year after year, frankly little changed. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. To help fight the pandemic, for most of 2020, employees around the world have been forced to work remotely and many ideas surrounding the nature of work have been revised.
Now that access to a vaccine is imminent, we will soon emerge from our home offices and have a great opportunity to take a major step forward re-envisioning how we conduct our work.
Long commutes, dense traffic, and smog are not particularly sustainable but until now we did not think we had an alternative. According to Owl Labs, a firm that tracks remote work, prior to the pandemic 44% of global companies did not permit any remote work whatsoever. Now those same companies have found ways to remain productive remotely, and many will choose to permit greater remote work going forward. Video conferencing will become a standard practice reducing the need for commuting into a centralized office.
Since the beginning of civilization, cities have formed to promote and facilitate trade and other commercial activities. This process accelerated during the industrial revolution as businesses became increasingly specialized. With specialization came an increasing need for businesses to locate near other businesses that represented other components of their production or supply chain. Since communications were either in person or via hard copy documentation, collocation made communication and coordination easier and increased efficiency. As a result, large numbers of businesses naturally pooled together in specific geographical areas, thus creating large cities.
This trend continued unabated until technology began to make it possible to easily communicate and coordinate with others over long distances. However, with huge legacy investments in personnel and infrastructure, de-centralization created a fear of disruption and businesses have, until now, been naturally slow to make changes. During Covid-19 however, businesses were forced to learn how to operate remotely, and building on that success, the process of commercial decentralization will likely accelerate. This will ultimately reduce city densities and the noise, light, and heat pollution that goes with them, as well as providing a better quality of life for employees.
The personnel management culture of most businesses has long revolved around the notion, originally rooted in the manufacturing process, that everyone shows up at a given time to work together, so the boss can ensure every employee is productive.
However, a few months before the pandemic, Professor Prithwiraj Choudhury, the Lumry Family Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, published a prescient article in the Harvard Business Review on working remotely in which he reported on research he had done which indicated “work output increased by 4.4% after transition to WFA” (Work from Anywhere). Supportive academic work like this, as well as newfound confidence derived from the practical experience of implementing remote work protocols will likely drive an increased adoption of remote work as an accepted practice.
The lessons learned during the Covid pandemic provide us several useful tools:
Hopefully, we can and will ultimately be able to use the lessons learned as a common point of reference for moving toward a more socially and environmentally sustainable world.