What remote work will look like in 2021: 6 predictions

Paul Vallée

By Paul Vallée, Founder and CEO of Tehama

As the founder and CEO of Tehama, the sole mission of our business is to enable secure remote work. 2020 has been a year of major learnings and frequent pivots for me and everyone at my company. But together, we’ve proved that businesses can operate successfully in a fully remote work environment.

Right now, we’re hearing great news about a number of Covid-19 vaccines that are already circulating. In theory, those vaccines could trigger a return to the traditional in-person workplace. But will they? I don’t think so. Remote work is here to stay, and I have six predictions about how it will look in 2021 and beyond.

Prediction #1: Office centricity will die for good

Every once in a while, I have to head into the office to pick up a few files or grab some tech for my home office. Each time, it’s like walking through the house of a dead relative. It’s dark, cavernous and quiet, and each visit reminds me that the Tehama workplace as I knew it has permanently changed. 

Will there be a rebirth of the office in 2021? Yes, absolutely, but our new normal will be digital-first. Pre-COVID, our work always centered around the office or headquarters, even for remote staff. In 2021, today’s WFH setup will become permanent, with the office experience acting as the perk. We will see office space being repurposed for team-building events and meetings, but it will no longer be our center of gravity.  

Prediction #2: Employee morale will demand a renewed focus

In my previous role as CEO of Pythian, I led several hundred people who were working from home. In many cases, it was the employee’s first time working away from an office. Because of this, we trained leaders to look out for some typical problems. We learned that people really start struggling with morale and engagement after the first nine months at any new job, even if they’re working in person. If they’re working in an office, these challenges can more easily be overcome, due to the workplace friendships they’ve made that can help them adjust to the realities of the position. But when people are working remotely, those friendships might have formed only loosely or not at all. Today, employers have an added responsibility to provide the kind of emotional support and reassurance that aren’t readily available in the virtual world.

Prediction #3: Asynchronous work cultures will outperform and replace legacy cultures

Traditional organizations are synchronous: They rely on people performing their work in the same place and at the same time. I believe the future belongs to companies that are asynchronous — in other words, companies that allow their people to work when and where they wish. Asynchronous organizations don’t micromanage their personnel or scold them about productivity. They trust them and enable them to contribute to conversations no matter what time zone they’re in. Asynchronous organizations look for results, not attendance. I believe they will soon begin outperforming companies that adhere to the legacy culture of mistrust and micromanagement. 

This chart (by Matt Mullenweg) does a great job of outlining the journey from being an old-fashioned, synchronous organization to achieving the ideal asynchronous status of a successful remote workplace. At the base of the pyramid (Level Zero), we see the kinds of work that require people to be physically present: carpenter, hairdresser, barista and bus driver, for example. Next, Level One organizations are traditional companies that can allow brief periods of offsite work by knowledge workers, but they do little to enable that work. Level Two is where the pandemic placed most organizations. Level Two enabled working from home, but it still held employees to the expectations and anxieties of synchronous work. The next step, Level Three, commits organizations to a remote-first working style, and it triggers greater investments in security and home-office technology. Level Four is the place where companies go truly asynchronous, trusting completely in their personnel to produce results where and when they wish. Level Five is the dream, perhaps unattainable, in which employees innovate so freely and joyfully that they outperform even the best and most productive synchronous companies.

Distributed Work Five Levels of Autonomy

 

Prediction #4: Cybercriminals get smarter and explore new weaknesses

For all the benefits of remote work, we are already seeing a downside: a spike in cybercrime that will continue to plague businesses in 2021. When we were all still at the office, we knew someone was authorized to be there by the security badge hanging off their waist. Today, not so much. With the bulk of our interactions happening over email, phone or a messaging platform, the usual contextual clues around trust are missing, making us that much more vulnerable to social-engineering threats.

We’re also much more at risk of having our laptops stolen or lost. Plus, we’re now more vulnerable to insider threats. You might have heard about the recent Shopify breach, in which insiders managed to steal the data of some 200,000 businesses. The challenge going forward is to trust people enough to let them excel at their jobs while also having the security in place to mitigate the kinds of threats that are sure to become more common. This is what Tehama’s next generation Desktop as a Service platform is designed for. 

Prediction #5: Physical laptops will lurch towards obsolescence 

Businesses hated owning laptops before this pandemic. Today, with disrupted IT equipment supply chains, increased security threats and all the costs of shipping laptops, they hate it even more. 

I predict enterprises will eventually give up laptop ownership, opting instead for solutions that completely virtualize the laptop ownership experience. Businesses spend over $1,000 per laptop per employee per year, and they spend a ton of money on management. Their management solutions still include VPNs, which are an architecturally bad and dangerously insecure solution for the work at hand. I predict that whole industries will switch to a virtual desktop infrastructure, where data lives securely in the cloud and is displayed only locally in a zero-trust environment. 

Prediction #6: We’ll see new social benefits and opportunities

When companies explore the advantages of remote work, they’re usually thinking about how it will benefit their profitability. Understandable. They’ll be saving money on office space and gaining access to a much deeper talent pool. But remote work offers important social and moral benefits, ones that go way beyond the bottom line:

  1. Accelerated diversity and inclusion goals
  2. Improved access to and affordability of higher education
  3. Reversed brain drain
  4. Accelerated international economic development
  5. Progress towards a desexualized workplace
  6. Improved environmental sustainability
  7. Economic empowerment and job creation in Indigenous communities

I talked about these benefits recently in an article on Medium, and you can read the piece here.

2020 has been a grueling and frightening challenge for all of us. But in the midst of the turmoil, we have seen new possibilities emerge. With the growth of remote work in 2021 and beyond, I predict we will realize a future of work that is more productive, profitable, sustainable and humane.

To find out how Tehama can help you secure your own remote workplace, please book a demo.

This blog post was originally published on VMblog.com.

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