If you spent the pandemic in a relatively rural area, your daily life may not have looked that much different. While mask mandates and shelter-in-place orders were undoubtedly annoying for those living in the countryside, they didn’t fundamentally alter the way people lived their lives.
But this was not true for people living in cities. Our urban communities are built with one particular model in mind – one in which most people have to commute to work. So with many more people working from home throughout the pandemic, and continuing to follow a hybrid work schedule as we transition back to “normal,” the urban model for commuting is less important now than it traditionally has been.
It now seems, despite some warnings to the contrary, that we’ve weathered the storm with little lasting damage to the economy. In fact, some analysts believe that we may be entering a golden age – one in which workers are more free to decide when, where, and how they work. In other words, the pandemic, hasn’t simply changed how business leaders talk about remote work — it might have changed the very way we live, work, and play.
So what changes can we expect? Let’s explore the implications of the meteoric rise of remote work, and the effects it might have on our lives in the long term.
New needs at home
The most basic, but perhaps the most important, impact of the pandemic’s work from home orders has been that – well, people are working from home. That might sound obvious, but think through the implications of this simple shift and you’ll see that it’s not actually that simple. In fact, there are likely to be two major long term impacts of working from home.
One is that the supply chains we’ve built up, which are predicated on the idea of people working in offices and on manufacturing lines, might need to be radically re-thought. We saw during the pandemic that online shopping soared, and this has put a strain on the manufacturing and delivery networks we rely on. And with full-time remote workers now contributing over $1 trillion to the global economy, supply chains, B2B business models, and much more may need to be rethought.
The second major impact of more employees working from home will be in cybersecurity. Corporate IT specialists have spent decades building systems to protect critical infrastructure. But again, these systems are largely built on an office-based model. Employees working from home, and therefore taking responsibility for their own cybersecurity, has been a nightmare for cybersecurity workers.
On the other hand, there are encouraging signs that we are improving in this regard. According to recent studies, almost half of online users protect their networks with internet security software and passwords, and the majority are also at least familiar with the idea of good digital hygiene.
Couple that with the fact that there are now plenty of tools to help you work from home, including those that protect your data, and it may be that we can work towards making home offices as secure as corporate ones.
Offices for hybrid work
The shift to working from home is already having huge effects on the way that we organize our homes, but it’s also affecting our suddenly empty offices. As stay-at-home orders are slowly lifted around the globe, we are seeing workers returning to their desks with radically different expectations of what the office is and what it should provide for them.
We are seeing a rise in what is being called “hybrid work” — a model in which employees sometimes commute into the office and sometimes work from home. This model is likely to become the dominant paradigm of office work in the next decade, as we each seek out our own perfect balance of in-office and work from home time. These shifts also mean that when we walk into an office in 2030, it may look very different from one today, and businesses must be prepared to streamline operations for hybrid work environments.
For a start, it’s unlikely that anyone will have a desk that “belongs” to them. Instead, smaller offices will contain a reduced number of workstations that can be booked by employees who want (or need) to come into the office. It’s also likely that the workspaces which remain in the office will be more specialized. It might be, for instance, that workers will only come into the office when they need access to a more powerful computer or to have a meeting. And even if some people do choose to meet in an office, companies will have to find solutions for facilitating hybrid meetings, where both virtual and in-office team members are able to participate at the same time.
There is a word of warning to be sounded for both employees and managers here, though. Hybrid working implies that there is a connection between employee’s home offices and their work office, so going forward it will be crucial that we make remote connections as secure as possible.
At the moment, the best tool we have available to do that is a virtual private network (VPN), a must-have for anyone handling remote digital devices. According to cybersecurity expert Ludovic Rembert of Privacy Canada, a VPN is an absolute necessity for remote workers and digital nomads today. “Once you start using a VPN, and become aware of why it’s important, as there’s no going back,” says Rembert. These tools will help secure your communications when using on shared networks or even on your own home WiFi, giving you a peace of mind wherever you are working.
The death of the city?
It might be that the shift to home working changes more than just the way we work and how our offices look. It may even change the way in which our cities operate. With so many employees no longer needing to commute into the office, it seems a lot of people are finally realizing a life-long dream of moving to the countryside.
In many ways, this demographic shift is the reversal of one that has been happening for decades now. The “death of the suburbs” has been predicted many times. But it seems they aren’t dead yet, as during the pandemic they actually saw an influx of visitors. In fact, there has been some discussion of so-called “Zoom towns”, which have seen a sudden explosion of new residents — often wealthy remote workers who are driving up prices and (some say) pricing out the locals.
Whether this trend will last is difficult to say. There are already signs that people who left our major cities during the pandemic are returning, perhaps having found that their quiet rural life was a little too peaceful. This seems to be particularly true of New York, where rent prices are already rising after a sharp dip last year.
The reality will probably be somewhere in between these two extremes. It’s unlikely that we will all move to isolated rural cabins, but it’s difficult to see us continuing to live in dense, overpriced metropoli to quite the same degree we have until now. In fact, already the concept of the “15 minute city,” where the majority of residents can reach the center of town in less than 15 minutes, is starting to be mentioned as a model for the future.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether some of the more extreme predictions of the last year — that the four-day week is the future of work, or that we will all end up living in Tahoe, for example — will come true. What is already apparent, though, is that we all need to adapt to this new reality. To do so, we must build strategies to improve our remote team productivity, security, and satisfaction.