The future of telecommuting

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only 3.6 percent of employees telecommuted at least half the time. As a result of the pandemic, that number has shot up to around half of all American workers telecommuting full time.

Is telecommuting the future of work — or a temporary means to survive a difficult situation?

While the answer isn’t certain, let’s take a look at the current trends and explore what the future of telecommuting may look like.

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Why telecommuting will likely continue to grow in the future

For many employees and companies, this sudden shift has turned out better than expected. It appears increasingly likely that a large percentage of “temporary” telecommuters will never return to full-time office work.

Large companies such as Twitter and Shopify have announced that workers can continue to work from home permanently. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that by the end of 2021, 25–30 percent of workers will likely telecommute at least a couple of days per week.

While it’s too early to say how many companies will embrace telecommuting after the pandemic, there are a number of reasons why it’s likely to gain a more permanent seat at the table:

  • There’s increased demand from employees. Telecommuting was already very popular with workers; an overwhelming number of full-time office employees wanted to telecommute before the pandemic. Now that many have had the chance to make the leap, some will be unwilling to go back to the office full time.
  • “Fear of the unknown” is diminishing. As the current situation forces managers to deal with telecommuting, many are finding that their concerns about its inefficacy are unfounded. Debra A. Dinnocenzo, founder of telecommuting consultancy VirtualWorks!, has been interviewing senior leaders and managers about their experiences with telecommuting during COVID-19 and their expectations going forward. “They’re finding that many jobs they thought could never be done from home are actually going very well with telecommuters,” she says.
  • Employers are becoming aware of the benefits. Now that employers have experience with telecommuting, they’re eager to reap the benefits, such as reduced office costs and access to a much larger talent pool.Each worker who has at least a half-time telecommute schedule saves an employer around $11,000 a year.
  • It promotes business continuity. COVID-19 has made business leaders aware that telecommuting isn’t always optional — in an emergency, it’s a necessity. “During the pandemic, telework saved the day. Business continuity is one of the greatest advantages of telecommuting,” says Dinnocenzo.
  • Technology supports telecommuting better now than at any time in the past. Telecommuting wouldn’t be as popular as it is now without reliable internet connectivity in most areas of the country and the multitude of software tools that keep workers connected and productive. Apps like Zoom and Slack have made remote work more viable. It’s also fair to assume that, as new technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) improve, our ability to communicate with and manage distributed teams will become even easier than it is now.

Future trends in telecommuting

It seems safe to say that telecommuting will continue to grow, but will it look the same in the near future? What trends will result from this shift, and how will it impact current employment arrangements? Here are three telecommuting trends experts foresee in our future.

More hoteling

Hoteling is a practice where employees who telecommute part time reserve an office space or workstation for their in-office days rather than keeping a permanent workspace. This strategy reduces an organization’s office space requirements and costs.

“I think the percentage of people telecommuting in any given day will be factors higher than it has been. People may not telecommute five days a week, but two or three days a week, and then go into the office a few times. Companies will have smaller offices with employees rotating — some telecommuting, and some in the office,” says Henry O’Loughlin, founder of remote work resources blog Buildremote.

More benefits for remote workers

O’Loughlin says that, because telecommuting wasn’t very common, there hasn’t been much competition on benefits tailored to remote workers. But as working remotely becomes more widespread, he believes that will change.

“If everything else is equal in employment benefit packages, employers will start competing on work-from-home benefits. Workers will compare what telecommuting costs employers will reimburse them for, such as the cost of Wi-Fi, a stipend for a home office or co-working membership, or equipment such as a standing desk or extra monitor,” he says.

Debate over salaries for remote workers

Facebook recently announced plans to shift its company to a more remote-based workforce, but this comes with a stipulation that has proven to be controversial — the company will link salaries to the employee’s location to match the cost of living. As telecommuting becomes mainstream, it’s likely the debate over whether salaries for remote workers should be universal or linked to location will intensify.

“I think people who live in San Francisco and work from home will make more than people in Nebraska,” says O’Loughlin. “Salaries tied to local cost of living will be built into the future of work more and more, so companies can remain competitive in attracting top talent who prefer to live in more expensive cities. You can’t hope to attract top-tier workers in any geographic area without offering a locally competitive salary.”

Changes in technology will likely continue to transform telecommuting; things like augmented and virtual reality and a range of AI-enabled tools are just around the bend and will certainly have an impact. Communication and collaboration will also benefit from new advancements.

Few people doubt that telecommuting will become more common in the future, but will it be just one more method of getting work done among many? Only time will tell.

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