Working from home was once a perk offered by progressive companies looking to recruit top talent. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only 7% of working professionals had a flexible workplace benefit.
However, the technology available today has enabled increased connectivity and efficiency for remote work. And with 42% of the US workforce now working from home, there’s real proof that company operations aren’t contingent on an office.
The Pandemic Sped Up the Inevitable
The writing was on the wall for a more flexible workplace even before the pandemic. Commutes were gradually growing longer, which can impact employee health and well-being, resulting in increased risk of depression, obesity and lowered productivity.
Another factor was the rising cost of office space. Last year the global cost to lease prime office real estate jumped by a steeper-than-usual rate of 3.6%. The pandemic has only further pushed organizations to reexamine their real estate budgets, especially since productivity hasn’t dipped in the crossover to remote work.
An already shifting workplace culture combined with the pandemic inadvertently created the golden age of working from home.
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A Timely Mix of Advanced Tech and Behavioral Change
With remote workplaces becoming the new standard instead, it’s important to ask: why has this mass work-from-home experiment been so successful? The answer lies in a combination of advanced technology, declining transit use and a decades-long increase in commute times.
1. Automation of Rote Tasks Opens the Door for Higher-Level Work
In-person, worker-to-worker interaction was practically eliminated overnight in corporate offices as a result of the pandemic. This change exacerbated manual workflows that typically required an employee to walk over to a coworker’s desk to keep repetitive processes, like dropping off signed forms, moving. Enter artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
Advances in AI workflow software have made the automation of rote tasks easy for companies of all sizes. Process automation keeps these projects moving on their own without the need for manual, in-person actions from employees. For example, instead of having sales reps spend time on repetitive tasks like data entry and quote generation, they can spend more time engaging customers.
Automation enables a much more streamlined remote experience and ultimately trims down high-volume routine tasks and opens up employee calendars.
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2. Commute Times Have Skyrocketed Over the Last 10 Years
No matter if workers return to the office or not, the bottom line is this: Commutes have only increased in recent years. Depending on the region, the average commute can take anywhere between 25 to 31 minutes. Long commutes also result in the “commuter paradox” — the more time workers spend commuting, the lower their reported well-being tends to be.
While it’s true that employees are experiencing longer workdays from home amid the pandemic, they’re also more satisfied. Eighty-three percent of office workers now want to work from home at least one day per week, and one main reason is the lack of a commute.
Ultimately, workers dislike commuting and love having more time back in their day. And employers are using this newfound satisfaction by creating more robust work-from-home policies for the future.
3. Videoconferencing Is the Best It’s Ever Been
Arguably the most vital technology currently keeping workers connected is videoconferencing. Although videoconferencing was around well before the pandemic, a largely in-person office culture made its use erratic.
When offices started going remote in March 2020, however, videoconferencing became a necessity. Zoom experienced the “Zoom boom,” doubling its revenue from the first quarter 2019 in the first quarter of 2020 as demand for user-friendly video interfaces skyrocketed.
Moreover, virtual connectivity shows significant promise. Virtual reality (VR) could one day enable an experience where employees feel like they’re sitting in the same conference room as fellow coworkers during remote meetings.
4. Public Transportation Was Already in a Free Fall Before the Pandemic
The rapid decline in public transportation use began in 2018 when experts called falling ridership an “emergency” for cities. The pandemic has only exacerbated this decrease, with ridership plummeting further across many major cities.
The post-pandemic future of public transit is also in question. Many riders are afraid to use mass transit in fear of being exposed to coronavirus. And while there are alternatives like walking, bicycling and driving, these options may not work for employees with long commutes or those who reside in cities that aren’t conducive for driving.
Time will tell what the future of work will look like. However, the rise of automation technology and videoconferencing tools has served as an antidote to behavioral changes including decreases in public transportation ridership and prolonged commutes. If these markers are any indication, the home office may be a staple for years to come.