Even as remote work has emerged as a solution to the challenges of the present, we need to gradually disengage ourselves from what works in the now and rediscover what works in the normal.
Throughout the pandemic, one silver lining for many people has been the ability of technology to step up and address our needs.
Remote work is no longer the exclusive purview of IT professionals. Court reporters and healthcare workers can offer their services through Zoom meetings. Traditionally in-person events have gone fully virtual.
Contactless systems have gone to the next level, handling payment processing and the delivery of goods. Even the restaurant and hospitality industries have found tech innovation to be a lifeline amid uncertainty and hardship.
Yet these tech solutions are, to varying degrees, widely considered stopgap measures. And when it comes to everyone’s jobs, there’s a real question lingering in the air: how much of our work will continue to be done remotely as the pandemic recedes?
Remote work’s uneven success
Early into the pandemic, the widespread adoption of remote work was hailed as an answer to the years-long call for employees to gain greater flexibility.
It’s true that when you no longer have to report to a traditional office, you enjoy more control over your time and working conditions. But in the big picture, these benefits aren’t available to everyone.
Remote working arrangements had been implemented selectively in the years before the pandemic. This wasn’t always down to hesitation on the part of employers. Studies on remote work before Covid-19 pointed to the digital inequality gap as a critical factor in applicability.
Along the axes of inequality such as race, class, or gender, people have different skill levels and access to tech resources. Those from a higher income bracket or who have better educational attainment tend to disproportionately occupy positions at the middle level and above. These people have a greater ability to work remotely.
Remote work is inseparable from the knowledge economy. Industries that rely less on skilled labor and more on physical presence will be unlikely to allow many employees to work away from the office, pandemic or no.
This is the first issue with projecting remote work as the future. There will always be a large swath of the working population that doesn’t have this as a realistic option.
A problem for the young
An even bigger problem is that remote work doesn’t sit well with younger employees.
There’s a generational divide in adjusting to remote work, and it doesn’t cut the way you might expect. The young employees from Gen Z who grew up as digital natives are often the ones who struggle the most. Meanwhile, Gen X and millennials manage the transition smoothly.
This belies the fact that it’s not about the tech. It’s about the experience we have working within a well-defined structure, something the office environment provides. And it’s something that younger workers don’t have a lot of experience with.
Even more concerning for young professionals is the potential cost to their development and career opportunities.
The daily grind of reporting to an office can be wearying, but you also find intangible rewards in the form of social immersion.
Sharing a physical environment with your colleagues creates the opportunity for spontaneous, informal interactions. It helps you practice your interpersonal skills, enabling better communication and collaboration. Getting to know people in person remains the best way of building your network and being observed for potential growth.
With those foundations in place, older workers can offset the relationship and communication ‘poverty’ of online tools. Again, it’s the young ones who face considerable barriers.
It’s laughable that remote work is being touted as the future when the future generations themselves are ill-equipped to building entire careers on such arrangements.
As it’s been a welcome option for the few who can afford it and are capable of navigating the transition, remote work will continue to serve those people well.
The real takeaway, though, is that we can’t overlook the rest of the labor pool as we move forward.
Some employers have been lauded for giving their workers permanent work-from-home arrangements. Most would be better off figuring out the real challenge of how to make offices safe and welcome back their employees full-time or under a hybrid model.
Workers, for their part, will need to recognize that remote work is yet another manifestation of inequality. If you want the greater flexibility it offers, you’ll have to become well-versed in digital literacy and master skills that are in demand in the knowledge economy.
And along with exerting efforts in that direction, be deliberate in networking, maximizing personal interactions, and building relationships with others.
We live in strange times, but the present will eventually veer back towards normal. It’s best to stay rooted in the practices which have helped people succeed under normal circumstances.