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The Rise of the Virtual Office

The COVID-19 pandemic has been, among other things, a global experiment in remote work. Almost 60% of American workers report having worked from home in the past 12 months, and this is showing no signs of slowing down. In the UK, for example, Deloitte announced this week that its 20,000 employees would be permitted to work from home forever. The future of remote work is here, and with it, an entire ecosystem of new technologies that have been developed to make it easier for remote workers to collaborate.

What’s Old is New

Working from home is not a new concept. In centuries past, paradoxically, this was the default mode of operation for the vast majority of working people. In the 17th century, it started to become more common to work in large factories, but people still largely worked from home when they were clocked off. From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, the industrial revolution brought about a more permanent shift in the way people worked. People began working in large, centralized offices. This trend continued steadily, and to this day most people associate work with being in a dedicated office among company colleagues.

But the 21st century has thrown a curveball to this trend. Even before the pandemic, it was becoming increasingly common for people to work from home. At my previous job at a large tech company, I saw this. We had a full-time program specifically aimed at encouraging remote work. The unofficial tagline was “unlimited work from home”, a nod to the fact that some of our competitors had a strict limit on how much time you could spend working from home. It wasn’t uncommon for people to work from home in excess of 50% of the time. As the pandemic hit, this trend accelerated. It was a little unclear what the policy on remote work was at any given point, but everyone’s natural instinct was to work from home as much as possible.

Now, of course, almost every company in America has some kind of work-from-home policy in place, and many big names have declared that WFH arrangements will become a permanent fixture.

Four Day Work Week, Anyone?

Let’s go back to the Deloitte announcement. The company says that they are making this move because it will be good for their employees. They claim that employees will be happier, more productive, and have a lower turnover rate. This claim is backed up by some science.

In a recent study of a large Canadian bank, employees who worked remotely were found to be happier, more productive, and more loyal to the company. They were also found to be less stressed and sick than their co-located counterparts.

There have also been studies into the productivity of remote workers, and these have yielded similar results. Generally, productivity is about as good as when working in the office, and in some cases it can even be higher. One study found that remote workers were more productive because they tended to work longer hours, and were more motivated to work when they had to travel to the office.

Finally, some companies have been experimenting with 4-day weeks, and this has also yielded positive results. One study found that “people who worked four eight-hour days did just as much work as those who worked five eight-hour days” and that “the four-day week increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and boosted employee morale.”

The bottom line is that, in most cases, remote work is good for your employees, and it’s good for your company – and this remains the case even as the pandemic is dying down.

Tools of the Trade

One of the biggest effects of this transition has been the ecosystem of tools, services, and products that have been developed to make remote work easier and more productive. Some of these are the obvious ones: Zoom, Slack, Trello, Google Apps, etc. But there are also other, more subtle tools at work that are just as important. Budding entrepreneurs can, for example, rent a virtual business address in several major U.S. cities for a very low fee. This allows them to have a home base for their company without having to actually rent or buy office space.

Other services that have blossomed during the pandemic include home cleaning services, which have become popular for remote workers who don’t want to risk getting sick and going to the doctor. They also help out with laundry, meal preparation, and other things that are necessary for work/life balance but take up too much time to do in the office.

The home office itself is also a changed landscape. In the days of yore, having an office to work from home meant having a dedicated room for it. Now, it’s much less common to have a dedicated office given the popularity of apartment living. Instead, people tend to work in a dedicated section of the kitchen or bedroom.

The Bottom Line

At the risk of sounding clich̬, the pandemic has changed the way we work. We are seeing a shift from the age of office-based work to one that more closely resembles the pre-industrial era. This has come with certain tradeoffs Рfor example, some people find the physical separation from their colleagues to be isolating Рbut for many it has been a welcome change.

The pandemic has also created a whole new industry of products and services that are designed to make working remotely easier. This is undeniably positive, and one of the best things to come from the pandemic. Let’s make use of it.

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