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Remote work was already on the upswing – and then the coronavirus came along

Paul Vallée

This is the first of a three-part blog series on the growing importance of remote work in the business world. In this first installment, we focus on the trend toward remote, global workforces thanks to changing workplace conditions and the advent of new digital technologies.

As the novel coronavirus Covid-19 continues its steady drumbeat across the world, governments have begun telling the public in North America and elsewhere to prepare for a possible outbreak in their community. But what are businesses here, and across the world, doing to keep themselves and their staff as prepared as possible?

Although some organizations (like manufacturers and health-care clinics) don’t have this option,  many have turned to a work-from-home approach underpinned by digital technology – especially, so far, in China, where vast lockdowns and quarantines have made it the only option for some businesses to continue operating. Even old-school organizations traditionally opposed or resistant to large-scale remote work have told people to work from home during the crisis. 

The Chinese work-from-home push has been accompanied by an explosion in China in the popularity of new business apps facilitating digital collaboration, such as Tencent Meeting, Dingtalk, and Lark, as well as more well-known offerings like Slack and Zoom.

This all makes a lot of sense, considering conditions on the ground in China and elsewhere. The more we can do as societies, and businesses, to combat the basic reproduction number, or R0,of the current virus – which can be affected by factors such as environment, culture and individual behavior – the better.

A combination of factors driving the shift to remote work 

But as the Financial Times recently pointed out, the coronavirus crisis isn’t the only tailwind propelling businesses and governments toward remote workforces. It’s better for the environment. It lessens the burden on municipal infrastructure like public transit and roads. Technology companies like Stripe and Twitter, as well, are increasingly recognizing the value of a remote workforce. “We’re reaching a talent pool that expects a lot more remote work, expects to work outside of California and outside of San Francisco, and we should be building our company around that,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explained in a recent conference call.

In other words, for Twitter to find and retain the best global talent, they’ve recognized a need for flexible work through digital technology that can be accessed virtually anywhere. And the numbers back that up. Consider Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2020 report, which says:

  • 98% of remote workers say they would do it the rest of their career
  • 97% say they would recommend remote work to others
  • 89% say they are either happy with their current level or would prefer more remote work

But most of us are aware that remote work isn’t some brand-new thing that’s come out of the blue – far from it. As we’ll see below, the work-from-home movement has been a long time coming. 

The evolution of the remote workforce

The remote workforce has its roots in the early 1970s, when the concept of teleworking first appeared with the publication of The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff, written by a former NASA engineer. It presented telecommuting as a way to battle urban sprawl and traffic congestion, although it was slightly off in its estimate that telecommuting would be the norm within one or two decades of its publication.

Since then, working from home has been called all sorts of different things – from telecommuting, to telework, to virtual work, to remote work, to distributed and hybrid teams, to smart working or agile working – during its decades-long evolution

    • 1990: The City of Los Angeles pilots a telecommuting project in an attempt to cut down on smog and traffic
    • 1993: The International Telework Association and Council (now called the Telework Coalition) is founded
    • 1994: AT&T holds its first telecommuting day
    • 1996: The National Telecommuting Initiative is passed in the U.S., with a goal of providing flexible work options to 3% of federal employees 
    • 1997: Pythian, the birthplace of remote work platform Tehama, is founded with a vision of permitting a team working from home anywhere in the world to provide sensitive data services to enterprise customers
    • 1999: Pythian becomes the first company ever to use IPSEC VPN technology to secure client/service-provider relationship.
    • 2005: WordPress creator Automattic is founded as a 100% digital workplace
    • 2008: The Great Recession spurs work-from-home initiatives from a range of companies   
    • 2010: The U.S. federal government passes the Telework Enhancement Act, requiring federal agencies to develop and establish work-from-home policies
    • 2012: Pythian launches its Adminiscope remote work platform, which quickly wins DBTA’s Trend Setting Product of the Year award for two years running
    • 2016: Telecommuting watchdog Global Workplace Analytics says the work-from-home sector (not counting self-employed) has grown by 103% since 2005

This push towards remote work has only accelerated in recent years. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 4.7 million employees in the U.S. now work from home at least half the time (not including the self-employed). That’s a 173-per-cent increase since 2005. Additionally, 40 per cent more U.S. employers now offer remote work options than just five years ago. 

Why the remote global workforce is the future

As we enter the 2020s, there’s one story the data has consistently told over the past few years: that people generally enjoy – and appreciate – working from home. According to Owl Labs, slightly more than one-third of U.S. employees would take a pay cut of five per cent to work from home. The same study indicates that of all employees in the U.S., 29 per cent more remote workers say they’re happy in their jobs. And a recent FlexJobs report indicated that 82 per cent of millenials are more loyal to employers who offer remote work.

Further, a 2017 Gallup survey indicated that nearly 40 per cent of U.S workers would switch jobs to one that allowed at least some remote work. “I think it’s fair to say that we’ve been expecting an acceleration in remote work for a couple of decades and to say we’re in it now in earnest,” University of South Carolina management professor Mark Maltarich recently told HR News

“As more companies have had success with remote working, and others see that the benefits really do materialize, more companies are willing to take a risk.”

And despite some naysayers and resistance by some employers, recent stats have also begun to tell another story – that remote workers are just as (if not more) productive than their in-office counterparts:

  • 77% of employees in a recent survey indicated they were more productive when working remotely
  • 30% indicated they accomplished more in less time when working remotely
  • Remote workers, on average, work 6-7 more hours per week than in-office counterparts

And it's not just employees raving about the benefits of remote work, either: Global Workplace Analytics says 95 per cent of employers surveyed who offer remote options experienced increased employee retention (we’ll take a deeper dive into the benefits and potential pitfalls of remote work in the next post in this series).

Enabling the remote, distributed, cloud-based workforce

Setting up a remote workforce isn’t always easy, especially for large enterprises with thousands of workers scattered across the world, or for those leveraging talent in high-risk regions. Security, compliance and performance issues due to unsecured networks and desktops are just some of the potential pitfalls for organizations who aren’t well prepared. One recent survey even indicated that “38% of remote workers hired by SMEs do not have the technological support or expertise they need when working at home or in a public space,” adding that “an additional 18% of respondents say that they would have been concerned as an employer about IT security.” 

Organizations who aren’t prepared to facilitate secure work-from-home environments risk damage to corporate, mission-critical and data-sensitive apps and systems, along with potential IP loss and data breaches. 

But new, secure and compliant cloud VDI technology – known as Virtual OaaS, or Virtual Office-as-a-Service – can help. Virtual OaaS provides a secure service delivery platform that can be provisioned in mere minutes, saving users time and money on day one while eliminating the technical and logistical complexity of shipping laptops or building VDI infrastructure, enabling VPNs, and establishing physical offices.

The data is telling us that remote work through distributed, global teams isn’t just a fad. It’s here to stay – and considering current global events, will likely become more popular than ever in 2020. The only question now is which organizations will be best positioned to take advantage.

Tehama’s cloud-based workspaces enable enterprise workforces to work from home securely thanks to secure perimeters, deep forensic auditing and built-in SOC 2 Type II compliance. Contact us for more information on what Tehama can do for your organization, or visit us online to get started today. 

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