As originally published in Fast Company, March 26, 2020
We’re in the Midst of a Massive Work-From-Home Experiment. What if it Works?
By Lindsay Tigar
Life has changed enormously over the course of a few short weeks. Schools are closed, some cities have curfews, and more Americans than ever before are crawling out of bed and dialing into conference calls from their couch.
In less than a week, many companies have scrambled to create remote-work practices and help their employees set up shop in their dining rooms and living rooms and bedrooms.
As someone who worked from my home office pre-COVID-19 and who is part of a league of professionals who shout about the benefits of remote work from every rooftop I can find, it’s been interesting following this shift.
While much of the news today is scary, I’ve found a silver thread of hope in this pandemic: What if this is our chance to prove remote work, well, works?
Life is stressful for us all right now, and maximizing productivity shouldn’t take precedence in a crisis situation, especially as many of us are juggling work and caretaking responsibilities. But being empowered to manage your own time, capitalize on your own peak periods of focus, and not feel stressed by commuting can be hugely valuable.
Since I made the move from full-time employment to full-time freelance almost three years ago, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in my productivity—and income. With more hours in the day to devote to building my business, I was able to pitch more outlets, finally incorporate my content agency into an LLC, and eventually hire writers for large blog-development projects for brands. For 15 months of my remote work experience, I quite literally worked from anywhere: trains to the airport in Tokyo, a bus winding through the mountains of Peru, a boat, somewhere in the middle of Mexico’s Riviera Maya region. This was made possible by a sense of adventure and also by Remote Year.
This program, founded in 2014 by Greg Caplan and Sam Pessin, provides the opportunity for freelancers (such as myself), and for those with gigs that allow remote work, to take their jobs on the road. For a year, I moved between 12 different international cities across three continents, calling each of them home for 30 days. In the past six years, there have been dozens of communities like mine, ranging in size from 20 to 65, who figured out how to meet deadlines, take calls, and complete their job functions, from wherever they happened to be in the world.
Caplan, the CEO of RY (as we alumni call it), said the company has watched remote work grow incredibly quickly over the last few years, not only enabled by technology but also fueled by workers’ demand for flexibility in the workplace. The stats back him up, too, according to an analysis conducted by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics. From 2005 until 2017, the United States has experienced a 159% increase in remote work. And while there were 3.9 million American satellite workers in 2015, that number is 4.7 million today—or 3.4% of the overall population.
Though the arrival of a novel virus isn’t the best circumstance for a company to be forced into remote work, Caplan does hope there will be an even bigger shift toward this type of professional option, because the “cat is out of the bag.”
“Coronavirus is going to expose more people to working remotely than ever,” he says. “Most people will see that it is very possible and start to grow accustomed to the benefits of [remote work], including autonomy, no commute, and less distractions than open offices. Companies that don’t allow remote work already are going to have to continue supporting it going forward, now that they have proven to themselves that it works.”
After COVID-19 passes and businesses try to return to normal, there is a real possibility that professionals may change their tune on what matters most to them. That’s already the case for many, according to research from the International Workplace Group. Their March 2019 findings showed that 80% of job seekers would choose a job with a flexible work-from-home policy over one that doesn’t offer the same benefit.
With an unknown amount of time ahead of everyone, experts such as Heinan Landa, the CEO of Optimal Networks and the author of The Modern Law Firm: How to Thrive in an Era of Rapid Technological Change, are calling the outbreak “the world’s large work-from-home experiment”—and one that could end lingering stigmas about the ability of workers to be productive outside a traditional office.
“For companies and businesses who are just now navigating the challenges of remote work, they will perhaps bolster their flexibility options, improve their technology and cybersecurity, and take a second look at their current operational processes,” Landa says. “This is, in fact, a wake-up call for companies who have never had to deal with something like this before. For some, perhaps the outbreak will prove that remote work is a very real option and one essential to a business continuity plan.”
I agree with Landa. COVID-19 presents an opportunity to illustrate how successful and sustainable remote work can be for those professionals who desire flexibility.
Many entrepreneurs were ahead of the curve and founded their companies with remote work practices in mind. Allowing employees to pick their location fundamentally impacted their bottom line, culture, and ability to scale.
Below, several of these leaders share the value they’ve found in a scattered, diverse workforce. Use their perspectives to inspire your performance and routine while working remotely—and to create a strong case to maintain flexibility in the future:
Read the full feature here!