The year 2020 started poorly with the COVID-19 pandemic threatening, not just our health, but the global economy. In response, governments around the world have instituted massive quarantines, compelling companies to switch to flexible work setups or even remote work. The current business landscape has become a fertile ground for remote work trends.
With many organizations now keeping in touch via the internet, employers finally realize the benefits of working remotely—or at least how it differs from the traditional one. The question remains, however: is remote work a viable long-term strategy for working? These trends may point you in the right direction.
Working remotely isn’t simply convenient because of the 2020 pandemic. In a time where work-life balance is taking a hit, remote work allows an employee’s professional and personal lives to find harmony. This is why 98% of workers say they prefer to work remotely for the most part of their career, citing irreplaceable benefits that onsite working can’t provide.
Transitioning to remote work, however, has its challenges. Still, with the right processes, team, and technology, it can be far easier than you would think. Plus, with many companies now switching to remote work—some for the first time—the stigma attached to it is finally dissolving, and many organizations are sharing an effective roadmap of what works for them.
Thankfully, trends in remote work are looking favorably toward companies that adopt early. Global Workplace Analytics, for instance, found out that over a third of all remote employees would rather have a 10% pay cut just to work from home. With the percentage of Gen Zers in the workforce increasing, they are expecting the same flexible work setups they have seen from their millennial predecessors. As such, remote work is increasingly becoming more common and accepted by employees and employers alike.
Whether you are going to continue your remote work plan after the lockdowns or you’re looking to systematize one today, here are 16 remote work trends to help you capitalize on what’s coming to this industry.
- Flexible Work Will Be a Requisite
In the years since 2015, remote work setups have increased by 140%—10 times more than all other work arrangements (Global Workplace Analytics, 2020). This dramatic increase in flexible work and trading long-term onsite positions for shorter or flexible ones have been more pronounced as of late, with many companies around the world switching to remote work.
But it’s not just where people work that’s going to change, but also how. A 2016 survey found that 63% of people believe that the 8-hour workday will soon disappear (PwC, 2020), and rightly so. Long work hours often lead to stress and employee burnout which, in turn, can cost companies $125 billion annually as well as a turnover rate of 20% to 50% (Forbes, 2019). This may pave way for more employers offering freelancing and short-term options.
On the flip side, 32% also find flexible schedules as one of the biggest benefits to working remotely (Buffer, 2020). As such, this work setup has become more preferable for many employees, particularly for those who have kids, are pursuing further studies, and are freelancing on top of their main job. In fact, 52% of workers have negotiated flexible work arrangements in 2019 (FlexJobs, 2019).
This rising demand for work flexibility will affect the entire company’s HR department and the whole company itself. From hiring and onboarding to corporate policies and communication strategies, flexible work will dictate how an organization deals with the delivery of its services. Leaders need to look at what flexibility can offer them and exploit these advantages wherever they can. They also need to be conversant with the most effective remote team management guide to help their teams along. For example, flexible work options can increase employee retention by up to 10%.
- People Enablement Is Critical
People enablement is an approach to develop and empower employees. It’s based on the idea that organizations can grow much faster if employees can be allowed to explore their potential, learn new things, and gain experience. This emerging trend, in theory, gives them significant decision-making powers on par with C-level executives.
While most people see people enablement as something that’s usually done for an onsite team people enablement is an even more important factor in remote work.
Because it focuses less on a top-down way of managing things, this is perfect for a team that’s dispersed across geographical regions. By using HR to deliver what remote employees need, the organization taps a department that’s traditionally meant to offer support to the workforce and gives them more tools to do so.
And because 86% of employees feel that remote work alleviates stress (FlexJobs, 2019), they will be more receptive to a strategy that grants them more freedom and development.
- HR Automation
The tricky part about remote work is that the employees won’t be interacting in the same space. So, to optimize remote work setups, HR professionals should use all available technology. One such technology is a chatbot, which can cut customer (internal or external) support costs by 30% (Invesp, 2020). But it won’t stop there. Automation will be more ubiquitous in 2021 and beyond.
Likely, even more, HR departments will finally see some of their processes completely or partially automated, including hiring, training, and data analysis. For example, modern HR software can automatically filter and sort candidates, while the same can also employ content-rich LMS for onboarding and ongoing education.
In a remote work setup, you can simply modify the parameters when finding applicants or members for your team. This will be even more useful in such an arrangement, so you can process candidates and find culture-fit ones at a fraction of the time that you used to dedicate to these procedures. As a benefit, your HR team can then use the time saved to develop, guide, and align new remote workers to the company’s goals.
- More Organic Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence has allowed companies to make more data-driven decisions. Many industries have benefited from this technology by predicting market trends, automating repetitive tasks, as well as monitoring work developments in real-time. While 2021 will see more of it, expect that AI will do more than just crunch numbers and forecast sales (Forbes, 2020).
For starters, the COVID-19 pandemic was able to bring to light the importance of AI not only in simulation modeling and demand projection but also in remote coaching and employee engagement. Research by LEADx shows that 47% of managers were interested in working with AI-powered coaches (Forbes, 2020) to help train remote workers. This way, they can ensure a more streamlined and efficient way to equip telecommuters with the knowledge they require for work.
Companies will also see AI as more of an employee assistant in the coming years. More people consume AI services without knowing it—Siri and Alexa are prime examples—but some organizations may use in-house AI engines to help remote workers to do their jobs more effectively (HR Technologist, 2019). And what’s more, employees can use it in concert with other personal assistants for even more productivity and broader benefits.
- Bigger Role of Cybersecurity
The increased dependence on remote work software strategies and cloud computing means cybersecurity will be an even more significant concern in the future. One issue is that some unscrupulous individuals may piggyback data while it’s on transit from your office server to where you’re working, even hijack it completely. This does rarely happen, but what about more mundane security holes—like logging into a device that’s not secure? Or leaving your passwords known to anyone?
Companies now recognize this and are now beefing up their cybersecurity protocols. Even before the pandemic became the new norm in March 2020, estimates say that the total value of cybersecurity products will exceed US$1 trillion by the end of 2021. Furthermore, recent studies show that global cybersecurity spending is set to increase by 10% as the economy recovers from the pandemic (Canalys, 2021).
IT security will be more critical to the success of remote work in the following decade. Machine learning will assist security in this sector by learning how attackers can compromise data and using it to proactively protect valuable IT assets. This technique, called predictive security, is such an important part of remote work cybersecurity that the market had an average of 261% ROI for three straight years from its use.
- Demand for Cloud Communication Tools
Communication and collaboration are two of the best practices in any kind of work. Now, they’re especially important when you’re managing a remote one. As there are fewer opportunities for teams to physically interact, it’s a prime consideration for companies to recreate a digital version of a water cooler to facilitate discussion, bonding, and collaboration.
Many organizations do this by hosting weekly all-hands meetings, with all team members present. This will usually take the form of a video conference call, using either a cloud-based business phone system or a web conferencing tool. The goal is to make remote workers feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves and build trust and confidence with one another.
Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Skype is currently the heart of remote work arrangements. In the midst of the pandemic, the interest in UCaaS has skyrocketed by 86% (Avant Communications, 2021). Moreover, it is expected that the UCaaS user base in North America will grow at a CAGR of 23% until 2024 (Frost & Sullivan, 2021). And at the rate this pandemic is going, it seems likely that this trend will go on for the next few years.
- Fewer Meetings (But More Virtual Breaks)
Zoom meetings and online conferences via similar platforms have become instrumental in helping remote teams closely collaborate. However, it is not without setbacks. With teams increasingly relying on this mode of communication, so do the stress that it puts on telecommuters. In fact, experts have recently coined the term “Zoom fatigue” to refer to the tiredness associated with the overuse of virtual communication channels (National Geographic, 2020).
In a report by Owl Labs, results showed that 26% of remote workers point to having more meetings than usual as one of the challenges of working from home during the pandemic (Owl Labs, 2020). As such, 8 in 10 employees are calling for a break from meetings at least once a week in order to help them recover. Alternatively, setting guidelines for asynchronous communication (emails, collaborative documents, online forums) may help curb burnout. Through this, employees can better work at their own pace and have fewer intrusions during work hours.
Interestingly, however, this trend did not have an impact on virtual coffee breaks, or informal catch-up team calls. 21% say they want to have a regular schedule for these breaks to enhance team collaboration and beat the feeling of isolation (Remote Tools, 2020).
- Specializing Is Better
It’s always been common wisdom that a jack of all trades is a master of none. This is nowhere near as important for remote workers, where people with more general skill sets are less attractive to employers than those with highly specialized skills. As a result, generalists are replaced easily and, even when hired, are paid less.
Contrast this to an onsite position, where research suggests that being a generalist is better than being a specialist (World Economic Forum).
In a time where 59 million professionals in the US are freelancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic (Upwork, 2021), remote workers can earn far more by being proficient in a specific field. The narrower the field, the better the pay.
As for companies, they can keep this in mind when hiring and trying to retain top freelance talent, as remote workers are wising up to opportunities by taking short-term, independent contracts that make use of their niche skills than committing to a long-term contract with an average salary.
- Digital Nomadism on the Decline
In the past few years, telecommuters have often been referred to as digital nomads, owing to their ability to work from anywhere they prefer. However, with the ongoing pandemic came strict quarantine protocols, travel restrictions, as well as city-wide to continent-wide lockdowns that made it difficult to sustain the digital nomadism (The New York Times, 2020). As a result, many remote workers have given up the lifestyle altogether.
Recent studies show that as of 2020, the majority (84%) of remote workers prefer working from home. Only 16% opt to work from coffee shops, coworking spaces, and other places (Remote Tools, 2020). In another State of Remote Work report from another organization, similar data has been yielded with only 3% working primarily from coffee shops and 7% opting for coworking spaces (Buffer, 2020).
Meanwhile, for those that decided to continue being digital nomads, it seems that most of them have postponed or changed their travel plans due to the pandemic. Only 1 out 4 digital nomads in the US say that they are looking to travel internationally in 2021 and beyond while 52% say they would prefer traveling locally until COVID-19 restrictions have become more relaxed. In addition, 41% reported spending less time with their travels (MBO Partners, 2020).
Given the current state of the pandemic, this trend will perhaps continue for the next few years. But, with employee expectations that remote work will continue post-COVID, we can expect that the culture of digital nomadism will rise again.
- Longer Hours? Not Anymore
It’s no secret that remote workers work longer hours. OWL Labs recently reported that 1 in 5 telecommuters worked more hours per week — an extra 26 hours every month to be exact — during the pandemic (Owl Labs, 2020). For most companies, this is a highly valuable benefit; any productivity boost is a welcome mark on their ledgers. For employees themselves, not so much.
This happens mostly because remote workers often can’t draw the line between professional and personal time. In fact, 27% of telecommuters say this is one of the biggest challenges of working remotely (Remote Tools, 2020). As a result, burnout happens far earlier and more often to remote workers (ZDNet).
In 2021 and beyond, as remote work becomes the new norm, employers will have to put in place better work policies that will curb this problem. The use of time tracking software is a step toward across-the-board implementation in this case. However, keep in mind that this step may lower employee morale, with 43% of remote workers saying this may cause them to leave their company (Remote Tools, 2020). As such, alternative methods may need to be explored in the coming months or years.
- Onsite Workdays
Not all remote work arrangements are full-time. Some companies allow their employees to work from home once or twice a week. On the other hand, some require that they report to the office at least once a week. Others, however, have a full-time remote work setup, but even these companies have at least annual or biannual meetups, often used for team building purposes or company alignment.
There are certain benefits to in-office workdays, however. It keeps workers grounded and reinforces the idea of being part of a bigger team. Managers also use them as part of broad strategies to immerse employees in company values and work culture. All in all, while remote work has a lot of practical benefits, in-office work also reduces isolation.
And just in time—studies show that social isolation can promote inflammation (ScienceDaily, 2020), which is something you’d rather avoid in a pandemic.
- Suburbia Is Remote Work Central
Onsite and full-time employees often elect to live or bunk in areas near their workplace. This is often in a city area, where living quarters are often cramped and offer little privacy. By working remotely, however, you unlock a lot of opportunities—including more time, increased savings, and better work-life balance.
This has made areas with little population density, like the suburbs, suddenly skyrocket in demand. More remote workers now choose locations with improved quality of life or at least closer to their families. Some states even offer incentives to remote workers who move to their area. An example is Vermont. Under the Remote Work Grant Program, the state can pay workers up to $5,000 a year for two years (U.S. News, 2019).
Other rural areas are developing their own initiatives. These areas have all the amenities required for remote work, including high-speed internet and real estate values that are currently a steal. As more towns follow suit, suburbia would become hubs for remote work, developing them further into a kind of a feedback loop.
- A Shift in Urban Planning
Cities used to be the center around which white-collar commerce happens. In a future where most people work in the comfort of their homes (or traveling around the world), cities will become less important. It’s a shift in urban planning based around decentralizing business districts in cities and a more balanced, dispersed style of development throughout the city and its outlying environs.
One of the ways to do so is to revise how our cities are laid out. Modern cities still follow an industrial pattern where a central business district (CBD) is “downtown,” where many commercial establishments are located. When remote work becomes more prevalent, CBDs will have less importance as remote workers can work anywhere.
Urban planning in 2021 and beyond will also utilize some tenets of a smart city (SpiceFactory, 2019). A smart city is an extension of IoT. Now it will cover an entire urban area, where every area is connected using a high-speed, low-latency network, like 5G wireless and symmetrical fiber networks. Cloud computing will give way to edge computing, and data will be “open,” allowing citizens to co-create solutions tailored to their personal use.
This means that the entire smart city is a playground for telecommuters and remote teams alike.
- Gen Zers to Take Remote Work Further
The newest generational cohort is Generation Z, which some people call the “new millennials.” As of 2020, the oldest Gen Zer is around 22–23 years old (Pew Research Center, 2019), which means they’ve already entered the global workforce.
As the generation raised with technology, they are even more tech-savvy than millennials, who are either their parents or their mentors. And while millennials already have a lot of expectations when it comes to working, Gen Zers’ expectations are even more demanding and growth-centered. As such, their priorities when it comes to job opportunities vary from their predecessors. For instance, they expect to have flexible schedules (65%), to be able to acquire new skills for future jobs (41%), and to have a job that has a large and positive impact on society (40%) (Center for Generational Kinetics, 2020). This goes to show that Gen Zers will take certain things regarding work that older generations would have viewed as a “benefit” as a precondition.
Remote work will be one of them. While other generations would be wondering how to work remotely from home, this generation will not be similarly at a loss about it.
- More Inclusive and Diverse Workforce
It’s common knowledge that there is a divide between men and women in the workforce, not to mention the gender pay gap. In a remote workforce, the differences are even starker. Zapier, for example, found that 40% of female workers aren’t allowed to work remotely, compared to only 25% of men (Zapier, 2019).
This clear inequity means companies are missing out on the skills and perspectives that are exclusive to women. As remote work has become necessary in these times, employers may have already seen what female remote workers can bring to the table.
And it’s not just the gender divide that’s worrying. A survey shows that many employers have location bias (Harvard Business Review), often discounting applicants with longer commutes. Apart from this, some industries are also prone to hiring based on gender (as described above), ethnicity, and orientation.
Remote work, however, will bring down some of these barriers. Unlike a Silicon Valley tech company—whose employees are overwhelmingly white men—companies with remote work can diversify their employee portfolio. Location bias in a remote work arrangement won’t be a factor, as would ethnicity and orientation; employers only need to know if the candidate can actually work and deliver.
- Remote Work, the New Retirement Plan
It’s not just the millennials and the Gen Zers who can benefit from an increasingly remote working setup. Baby Boomers and Gen X could, too. By this time, the oldest of the latter would be entering retirement, joining their Boomer parents. And remote work can address the sudden void in their lives that they used to fill with work.
Quality of life and life expectancy has massively increased in the last few decades, from 48 in 1950 to over 72 by 2017. In fact, from 2007 to 2017, the worldwide average lifespan has jumped nearly three years (The World Bank, 2020). This has made retirees look for things they can do in their waning years, and remote work can partially be the answer.
Apart from the obvious benefits, like money, studies show that elder people who keep mentally and socially active (International Journal of Gerontology) are less susceptible to cognitive issues.
Plus, with their experience, they can act as consultants and coaches or mentors to those who are still employed. And with remote work, they can simply do so at their own time, wherever they are.
As millennials age, the popularity of remote work will allow them to retire early but still pull their own weight, at least in terms of finances.