The Rise of Remote Work

May 8, 2020 Sarah Hamilton

4-minute read

man on laptop with child sitting next to him

If I told you three months ago that practically your entire workforce would now be working remotely, would you have believed me? Anyone? Me neither.

“What about the logistics?” you would have asked. “The technology? The human supervision?”

Even before the current pandemic, nearly 25% of the United States workforce was working from home at least part of the time. Our new COVID-19 reality has simply accelerated what was already a rapidly growing trend toward remote work. 

The synergy between work-life harmony and working remotely

This desire to work from home has, in my view, been driven by an ever-increasing craving for what we at Workhuman® call work-life harmony. And in the past few months, the need for work to be an integral, enriching component of our overall well-being has only increased. 

Shortly before the crisis began, Workhuman conducted a survey of more than 2,600 full-time workers in the U.S. One of its findings confirmed the synergy between work-life harmony and working remotely. “Allowing employees to work when and where they choose is one way to achieve better work-life harmony,” the survey concluded. It also revealed that those who work remotely are more likely to report being highly engaged (55% vs. 44%) and happier at work (86% vs. 78%).

So how will this sudden and dramatic shift to working impact how and where work gets done, and by whom?

A shift in gender balance

The crisis has laid bare the not-so-subtle truth that women perform the vast majority of what are suddenly seen as “essential” jobs. A recent New York Times article notes, “In normal times, men are a majority of the overall work force. But this crisis has flipped that.” In fact, 52% of all essential workers are women, with social workers (78%) and healthcare (77%) topping the list. 

I believe this sudden disruption will have a major impact on the balance of gender in our post-COVID-19 world. As I see it, we will revisit and reassess who can do different types of work. And we will come to a renewed and more powerful realization that gender shouldn’t and doesn’t impact how well work gets done. 

The benefits and challenges of the remote setting

Fueling this reassessment of gender balance is the new understanding that many types of roles can be carried out more effectively – and more productively – from the home setting. As Workhuman CHRO Steve Pemberton observed in a recent interview, “People are realizing that I’m better served by spending more time being productive at home, than being in the car and battling traffic.”

In the past weeks, I’ve read many eye-opening and sometimes heartbreaking stories of working parents as they face the stress of doing their jobs effectively while trying to home-school and entertain restless, confused, and frightened children. I can tell you from personal experience – both my own, and in the sometimes tired faces of colleagues on Zoom – this is the reality many parents are facing these days.  

The new dynamic of parents working from home and sharing their quarters with children has blurred parental roles. Now, it has become incumbent upon couples – and even single parents – to evolve a new model for how children are parented. How will this spill over once life returns to normal – whatever that normal will look like? 

I believe the notion of a primary child caretaker will become essentially obsolete. Instead, we will evolve a more fluid, agile approach to parenting in which primary responsibility switches back and forth between couples, depending on needs and schedule. This will be the case in remote settings and when one or both parents return to an office environment. 

A ripple effect for new mothers – and fathers

In the end, this will have a ripple effect for new mothers, and may fundamentally change the time frame for when they return to work. In fact, the very notion of “returning to work” may be turned upside down. Perhaps maternity leave will no longer end on a date, but rather be a gradual, paced return to work. Perhaps it will be more holistic, and more actively involve both partners during the leave period and as they return to work.

“Someone once told me that in life, everything seems to stay the same forever, until one day everything is completely different,” wrote Workhuman managing editor Sarah Payne. Her observation deeply resonates today as we suddenly find ourselves in a world in which huge swaths of workers are now remote. Let’s be sure we learn from this experience as we redefine how, where, and by whom work gets done.

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About the Author

Sarah Hamilton

Sarah Hamilton is director of human resources at Workhuman.

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