What happens if remote workers become the majority?

We can’t deny the fact that the past few months have irrevocably changed the way most of us think about work. For a huge number of people the daily commute, lunchtime packet sandwich and after-work drinks have all been replaced by lie-ins, home cooking and drinks alone on the sofa.

It has been an overwhelmingly positive shift for some, but for others, the changes have brought with them additional problems such as a drop in productivity, child care issues and mental health struggles brought about by increased isolation.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, 49.2% of employees were working from home in April 2020 and, while the threat from coronavirus has continued to shift and change over time, it’s likely that a proportion of these workers will choose to continue performing their duties remotely either all or some of the time moving forward. As the job market recovers, others will inevitably follow suit.

So what happens when remote work becomes the majority rather than – as has been the case for centuries – something only a small part of the global workforce has been a part of?

Remote work is nothing new

The rise of remote work as the norm presents a unique challenge to employers who, until now, have been able to demand a physical presence from their employees – whether or not it was needed to complete their tasks – without fear of losing talent. Previously well-oiled processes such as maintaining employee health and wellbeing are now much more complicated to navigate.

But anyone who decides to stick with remote working will simply be joining a huge section of the workforce who already work alone. It’s estimated that 8 million people across the UK can be categorised as a lone worker, including those in industries such as construction, farming and real estate, as well as delivery drivers, cleaners, carers and so many more.

A lot of attention has rightly been paid to how workplaces can adapt to welcoming workers back in a safe way, but there has been less focus on protecting those who are performing their duties away from a central location. This can mean employees who are working from home or those working remotely in the field.

We’re now facing a landscape that has workers who prefer an office environment being welcomed back, while those bosses, colleagues and staff who have found value in remote working are allowed to stay put.

Taking care of lone workers

For existing lone workers operating remotely is simply a part of the job, and a lot can be learned from how these industries approach juggling a remote workforce. Good communication, for example, is not optional when employees aren’t physically together, and fortunately, technology has developed to be able to help in that area.

Other digital solutions like mobile workforce management tools are also a great way to promote synergy and collaboration between team members who might be scattered across multiple locations, and leaders need to consider incorporating technology into every part of their business now more than ever.

Tellingly, a recent poll by Gartner found that 91% of HR leaders said the biggest barrier to implementing productive work from home arrangements was a lack of technology infrastructure in place. While the development of collaboration cannot afford to waste any more time clinging to an outdated way of doing things.

As winter approaches and everyone’s work lives settle into a ‘new normal’, companies will need to decide whether a permanent shift to remote working is feasible and, if so, how the transition can be made as seamless as possible. When the world emerges from this crisis, there’s no guarantee it will look the same.

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