One of the big questions for this year is about whether or not work from home (WFH) and work from anywhere (WFA) policies are going to stick following this pandemic. It’s something that I mentioned in my 2021 predictions at the beginning of this year because it is something that would obviously have a massive ripple effect. So today I thought that it would be interesting to look back on data and articles that were published prior to 2020, before everyone really started prognosticating about the rise of fully distributed workforces.
What is clear, at least from census data, is that working from home was on the rise before COVID-19, but that it still only represented a relatively small percentage of the overall workforce. The numbers are significantly higher if you consider people who maybe occasionally worked from home, but for those who were 100% remote, it was estimated to be only about 5.2% of the US workforce in 2017 (~8 million people), about 5% in 2016, and about 3.3% in 2000. But the question still remains: Now that many/most people have had a taste of the increased flexibility, to what extent will it stick?
There’s a ton of research out there about the impacts of working remotely — covering everything from productivity to morale. But one takeaway that makes intuitive sense to me is that WFH/WFA flexibility is perhaps best when two things are present: 1) the employees already know how to do their job really well and 2) the work that these employees are doing is fairly independent.
The corollary to this is that remote work is probably not the best environment for newer and younger employees who would benefit from being around other more experienced people, and for situations where collaboration among coworkers and outside humans is essential for the job. When I think of the job of a real estate developer, I would place it high on the collaboration scale. Building a building involves a full orchestra of people that all need to be playing in sync. Personally, I find that easier to do when you’re sitting across a table.
My belief continues to be that we are are greatly exaggerating the extent to which work is going to disperse in the short-term. I recognize the trend line that existed prior to this pandemic and I recognize that some jobs are perhaps well suited to decentralization. But I think we will continue to see real limits on how much of this sticks as we move past this moment in time and into 2022.