Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University in California, points to “three golden rules” that, pre-pandemic, were believed to be crucial for successful remote work. First, having a working space that wasn’t the same room as where you slept; second, having high-speed broadband; third, six or more months of experience on the job so that you knew what you were doing.
The pandemic proved all three were, in fact, not required – and if it weren’t for the unique nature of the pandemic, we never would have been able to figure that out, says Bloom. Now, moving forwards, we can look at the difficult remote-work conditions during the pandemic, and use what we’ve learned to improve our set-ups. Bloom says he thinks it’s “incredibly positive” that pandemic remote work has been “more successful than anyone ever predicted”.
He suggests that the forced remote-work experiment is like comparing two versions of a smartphone. Say you bought an original smartphone years ago, and thought it was convenient at the time, but then one day you buy the newest, shiniest model, and suddenly realised how much more convenient it is than the original. That’s what remote work after Covid-19 could be like – we’ll only be able to improve and iterate on what was surprisingly successful during the pandemic.
Bloom also believes that, without the unique pressure-cooker environment of the pandemic, there wouldn’t have been as many leaps in remote-work technological innovation. He and his colleagues point out in a 2021 working paper that the number of US patent applications for technologies supporting telework, video conferencing and working from home doubled between January and September 2020. Even “Zoom is a lot better now than a few months ago”, says Bloom.
Kevin Johnson, associate professor of management at HEC Montréal business school, says that the pandemic gave remote work a wave it wouldn’t have had otherwise. “We’ve got the momentum to use in the coming months, weeks, to try and build something more integrated in our management system and our leadership styles,” he says.
In the end, we can acknowledge both perspectives; that while working remotely during the pandemic distorted many people’s views of what long-term remote work would look like, the unusual ways the pandemic affected the telework experience can serve as learning points for the future.
It’s important to identify the pieces of the Great Remote Work Experiment that were unique to the pandemic. After all, we might be tempted to look at those elements, and assume that they’ll always be a part of remote work. That’s why we need to pay attention to the parts of the day-to-day that pan out better or worse than we think, and flag it with a manager early. Communication and flexibility will be key. Just because certain factors helped remote work spread more quickly than it would otherwise, doesn’t mean those factors will stick around forever.