As the internet was taking root in the 1990s, people dreamed of a future where work could be done anywhere. The days of putting on a tie and commuting an hour to work at a desk in an office would give way to enjoying a relaxed morning and commuting twenty feet to the home office thanks to the wonders of broadband, it was predicted.
It didn’t happen, at least for most people who work behind a desk. In fact, in many ways the opposite happened.
Whereas it was once thought that people would leave congested cities to work remotely in small towns and the countryside, big cities like Seattle, Denver, and Washington, D.C. have actually become more overcrowded as people flock to office jobs there.
Rural areas and small towns have suffered to the gravitational pull of big city-based employers. While some employers allowed flexible remote work, either part or full-time, most didn’t.
That is, until now.
For millions of Americans who work behind a desk – and are blessed enough to still have a job – stay-at-home orders in states around the country have forced employers to allow their people to work from home.
A computer, email account, phone, and a decent internet connection are really all that’s needed.
The meme is true: that meeting really could have been an email. And if it really couldn’t be an email, modern internet infrastructure means face-to-face group contact is still possible over video applications like Zoom and Skype.
In the meantime, roads are clearing up and rush hour is becoming an unpleasant memory.
Many states and localities are taking advantage of this to do much-needed roadwork. Workers are getting more sleep at night and spending more time with their families. To be sure, people who haven’t done it before are taking time to adjust, and maintaining focus and productivity may be difficult for some if they’re not in an office. But many people are learning they can get just as much done at home, and with less stress, than commuting to an office.
Eventually the coronavirus crisis will be over, and office work will be possible again.
The hardcore extroverts among us will welcome the words: “report back to the office.” But many people will return to the long commutes in traffic and the 9-5 slog and find it more draining than ever. Will employers be able to put the genie back in the bottle and tell people who have successfully worked from home for weeks or months that they have to go back to the way things were?
I don’t think so. In fact, some companies may not even want to go back.
For those of us who have worked remotely for years, an internet connection, focus, and sometimes a bit of extra effort to maintain constant communication make remote work just as productive as office work. Occasional or regular visits to the office are always possible to ensure communication and bonding.
Now that millions of Americans have experienced the freedom of remote work, they should have more power to negotiate flexible arrangements. Maybe it can be three days in the office, two at home. Maybe it can be three weeks in the office for every one week at home. Maybe it can even be full-time remote with monthly or quarterly trips to the office.
People will save precious hours sitting in traffic and be less stressed while spending more time with their families. They’ll be able to work from the beach or a mountaintop on a working vacation, without the employer even knowing or caring as long as the work gets done. Some may even leave congested cities altogether, and small towns and rural areas will grow again.
Once you’ve experienced the freedom of working from home, it’s hard to go back. The potential of a remote revolution may be one of the few good things to come out of the coronavirus crisis. Here’s hoping.