A two part series on Coronavirus and its effect on our workforce. In this post we look at where we’re at now and the trend towards remote work.
What Is Going On?
As this article is being written, our Prime Minister just declared that Canada will be closing its borders to all foreign travellers. In the past few days, the WHO officially declared the Coronavirus or COVID-19 outbreak to be a global pandemic, and U.S. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency over the pandemic. We’re right in the middle of this deeply concerning situation, and it feels as if the world is holding its breath to see what will happen next. Even our dearly beloved Tom Hanks hasn’t been able to escape this pandemic unscathed.
Major companies around the world have been following in the footsteps of the Chinese and ordering employees to work from home. In the words of these Bloomberg writers, we’re about to “embark on the world’s largest work from home experiment.” Uber, Google, Facebook, Shopify and Amazon have all sent out memos to their millions of employees across thousands of offices to tell them to work from home, while companies such as Twitter have made working from home mandatory. Even universities, including Harvard, have asked students to move out of their dormitories and will be transitioning all classes online in order to prevent the spreading of COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic is of serious concern, and we at Summit want to be clear that we are not trying to make any assertions that are out of our depth in this article. What we want to talk about is the potential long-term impact that this situation can have on workplaces, teams, leadership and employees around the world – something that we’re deeply passionate about.
Coronavirus and Remote Work
In 2003, the SARS outbreak sickened thousands, but the awful epidemic had a fascinating impact on the Chinese economy – it sparked China’s online retail industry. While Chinese citizens actively avoided going outside, they began to turn towards the Internet to shop, which set the stage for companies like Alibaba to become the giant corporations that they are today. The epidemic gave birth to China’s massive e-commerce industry.
Experts are similarly predicting the COVID-19 pandemic may spark a similar transformation in today’s economy and workforce. While the list of companies that have issued work-from-home notices grow daily, stocks for companies like Zoom have been up by more than 50% in 2020 so far despite the global stock market collapse. This has caused experts like Elspeth Cheung, the global valuation director at consultancy Kantar Millward Brown, to propose that “this is going to have a long term impact on how we work on a virtual basis for the whole world…once we develop this habit of living our lives online, that will change our long term consumption habits.”
Indeed, the Coronavirus may spark a permanent change in the way work is being done in companies around the world. Along with her colleague Phyllis Moen (chair of sociology at the University of Minnesota), Erin Kelly (a professor of work and organization studies at MIT) suggests that despite being a terrible public health threat, COVID-19 may “give us a chance to rethink how work is organized,” and that it could be the “nudge that companies need to let go of outdated policies and practices.” Specifically, they believe that the pandemic may make remote working the new normal in organizations around the world.
Traditionally, work-from-home has been associated with negative consequences. Asking to work from home could lead to poor performance evaluations, fewer promotions, and reduced salary growth. Hence, many employees have tended to avoid requesting this special privilege. Given the current pandemic, though, having employees work from home has now become attractive, and for many companies, mandatory.
Depending on who you ask, forming a new habit can take between 21 to 66 days. Numerous companies, including Uber, have put out work from home notices that will last until April. Our question is this – could working from home become a new habit for employees around the world?
The trend of remote work has been on the upswing in recent years, even apart from the influence of the Coronavirus. Remote work among the non-self-employed workforce has grown 140% from 2005 to 2018, and data suggests that 73% of all teams in the workforce will have remote workers by 2028.
The growing popularity of remote working among organizations makes complete sense when you consider research that has pinpointed the benefits of allowing employees to work from home. Working from home gives workers more autonomy without hurting business performance, and leads to less stress, more satisfaction, and increased employee retention. When employees have the chance to work from home, burnout is down, and job satisfaction is up.
For good reason, remote work is rapidly becoming a widely-accepted norm in today’s organizations, and it seems like COVID-19 may just further accelerate the rate at which this happens.
Recognizing this possibility, we believe that it’s important for organizations to proactively begin to make recovery and post-recovery planning in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Martin Reeves, a senior partner and manager at the BCG Henderson Institute, asserts that “recovery planning needs to start while you’re still reacting to the crisis,” and we couldn’t agree more.