Opinion: We’re in the midst of a massive work-from-home experiment. What if it works?

While much of the news is scary, I’ve found a silver thread of hope in this pandemic: What if this is our chance to prove remote work, well, works?

We’re in the midst of a massive work-from-home experiment. What if it works?
[Photo: shironosov/iStock]

Life has changed enormously over the course of a few short weeks. Schools are closed, some cities have curfews, and more Americans than ever before are crawling out of bed and dialing into conference calls from their couch.

In less than a week, many companies have scrambled to create remote-work practices and help their employees set up shop in their dining rooms and living rooms and bedrooms.

As someone who worked from my home office pre-COVID-19 and who is part of a league of professionals who shout about the benefits of remote work from every rooftop I can find, it’s been interesting following this shift.

While much of the news today is scary, I’ve found a silver thread of hope in this pandemic: What if this is our chance to prove remote work, well, works?

Life is stressful for us all right now, and maximizing productivity shouldn’t take precedence in a crisis situation, especially as many of us are juggling work and caretaking responsibilities. But being empowered to manage your own time, capitalize on your own peak periods of focus, and not feel stressed by commuting can be hugely valuable.

Since I made the move from full-time employment to full-time freelance almost three years ago, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in my productivity—and income. With more hours in the day to devote to building my business, I was able to pitch more outlets, finally incorporate my content agency into an LLC, and eventually hire writers for large blog-development projects for brands. For 15 months of my remote work experience, I quite literally worked from anywhere: trains to the airport in Tokyo, a bus winding through the mountains of Peru, a boat, somewhere in the middle of Mexico’s Riviera Maya region. This was made possible by a sense of adventure and also by Remote Year.

This program, founded in 2014 by Greg Caplan and Sam Pessin, provides the opportunity for freelancers (such as myself), and for those with gigs that allow remote work, to take their jobs on the road. For a year, I moved between 12 different international cities across three continents, calling each of them home for 30 days. In the past six years, there have been dozens of communities like mine, ranging in size from 20 to 65, who figured out how to meet deadlines, take calls, and complete their job functions, from wherever they happened to be in the world.

Caplan, the CEO of RY (as we alumni call it), said the company has watched remote work grow incredibly quickly over the last few years, not only enabled by technology but also fueled by workers’ demand for flexibility in the workplace. The stats back him up, too, according to an analysis conducted by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics. From 2005 until 2017, the United States has experienced a 159% increase in remote work. And while there were 3.9 million American satellite workers in 2015, that number is 4.7 million today—or 3.4% of the overall population.

Though the arrival of a novel virus isn’t the best circumstance for a company to be forced into remote work, Caplan does hope there will be an even bigger shift toward this type of professional option, because the “cat is out of the bag.”

“Coronavirus is going to expose more people to working remotely than ever,” he says. “Most people will see that it is very possible and start to grow accustomed to the benefits of [remote work], including autonomy, no commute, and less distractions than open offices. Companies that don’t allow remote work already are going to have to continue supporting it going forward, now that they have proven to themselves that it works.”

After COVID-19 passes and businesses try to return to normal, there is a real possibility that professionals may change their tune on what matters most to them. That’s already the case for many, according to research from the International Workplace Group. Their March 2019 findings showed that 80% of job seekers would choose a job with a flexible work-from-home policy over one that doesn’t offer the same benefit.

With an unknown amount of time ahead of everyone, experts such as Heinan Landa, the CEO of Optimal Networks and the author of The Modern Law Firm: How to Thrive in an Era of Rapid Technological Change, are calling the outbreak “the world’s large work-from-home experiment”—and one that could end lingering stigmas about the ability of workers to be productive outside a traditional office.

“For companies and businesses who are just now navigating the challenges of remote work, they will perhaps bolster their flexibility options, improve their technology and cybersecurity, and take a second look at their current operational processes,” Landa says. “This is, in fact, a wake-up call for companies who have never had to deal with something like this before. For some, perhaps the outbreak will prove that remote work is a very real option and one essential to a business continuity plan.”

I agree with Landa. COVID-19 presents an opportunity to illustrate how successful and sustainable remote work can be for those professionals who desire flexibility.

Many entrepreneurs were ahead of the curve and founded their companies with remote work practices in mind. Allowing employees to pick their location fundamentally impacted their bottom line, culture, and ability to scale.

Below, several of these leaders share the value they’ve found in a scattered, diverse workforce. Use their perspectives to inspire your performance and routine while working remotely—and to create a strong case to maintain flexibility in the future:

Communication can become stronger

While naysayers would argue the opposite, the CEO of Modsy, Shanna Tellerman, says being separated forces her managers to stay even more connected to their team. From the very early days of the company, Tellerman says she invested in key remote employees, who were the smartest people she could find and who could solve the toughest problems. Their location didn’t affect that.

As the company grew and she hired some in-office roles in San Francisco, Tellerman has maintained her faith in remote work. “Our individuals and managers make a more conscious effort to clarify roles, expectations, and to discuss progress with remote employees,” she says. “Our remote employees rank 5% higher than office employees when asked if they know what is expected of them at work. They also rank 5% above office employees when asked if they have had discussions with their managers about progress in the past six months.”

Professionals may be more disciplined and effective

Before COVID-19, my friends would often give me a hard time for “having a long day at work.” After all, since technically I can go the whole day without putting on pants, it can’t be all that bad, right? Eh, not so much: Many remote workers, myself included, thrive on routine and discipline. And while employers may worry about the ability of professionals to complete their assignments without a babysitter, oftentimes they will meet them faster than if they were in-office.

In fact, Madeline Kelley, a global enterprise sales manager for Ellevate Network, says she’s far more productive and effective as a remote worker. For the past four years, she’s benefited from her company’s unlimited PTO (paid time off) and unlimited WFH (work from home) policy. She first left her home in Brooklyn a year ago,  when she signed up for the Tulsa Remote program. Applicants who are selected are given a grant of $10,000 to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for 12 months.

The experience has supercharged Kelley’s professional development—and made her even more dedicated, she says. “Because no one is around to hold you accountable, you have to be accountable for yourself,” she explained. “I spend most of my days in my apartment—with my two dogs—on sales calls, replying to emails, and having internal video meetings. And I always manage to get everything done.”

Companies have access to a larger pool of talent—including parents

The right person for the gig may not be located in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, or any other major metropolitan area. This was Abby Coleman’s mindset when she joined the fully remote company, Territory Foods, in 2019. Currently, the company operates in 13 markets. While they have team members in each of those regions, they decided against creating a central headquarters. Rather, they have talent from all over the country, including a leadership team located in five different states, with past experience working at companies such as Amazon, Kraft, General Mills, PepsiCo, and Target. Collectively, these leaders have nine children, with five under the age of five. “Remote work allows us to retain great talent because they feel they are able to more effectively juggle the daily demands of parenting, while not wasting any precious minutes commuting,” says Coleman.

Businesses can afford to pay more

The ability to grow a company without a lease is becoming more and more attractive. When Chris Neumann started his company, Cro Metrics, in 2011, he knew he wanted a remote workforce. In addition to being able to offer a flexible work-and-life balance and attract top-tier professionals, he also understood how not paying office rent would translate into happier employees. “Most companies spend 10 to 15% of revenue on rent. We use that savings to pay our employees above-market wages,” he says. “We are providing really great jobs that team members would otherwise not have access to, and in return we are able to attract the best talent from around the country.”

Brands can work across all time zones

DJ Haddad, the CEO and founder of Haddad & Partners, didn’t exactly choose a remote workforce. Rather, his company fell into it and inadvertently discovered the benefits. For the past 13 years, he’s been running his agency remote with leaders across the globe. This takes an average workday of eight to nine hours and turns it into 24. Because his team covers seven time zones, they can kick off a project at noon in New York and hand it over to a lead designer in Australia, who could then give it to someone else in the United Kingdom. By the time Haddad turned on his computer, the task would be 90% complete. “This is a project that would take our former agency at least three days to complete, and we would turn it around in one night,” he shares. “Of course, this means a lot of early-morning or late-night phone calls for our employees on East Coast time, but it’s part of our lifestyle by now, and in the end, it allows us a lot of flexibility during the day.”

We can’t predict what the aftermath of COVID-19 will look like, or how long this period of flux will last. What we can do is make the most out of it and think about how our professional lives will look like once the dust has settled. It’s my hope that I’ll have more friends to text to meet up for a midday coffee, since now they have more autonomy with their work.

And perhaps, more importantly, that we’ll be even more grateful for the gigs we have, and that we once again will be able to value our freedom. Remote workers may only account for 4% of the population, but for those of us who can do our jobs from wherever, there’s never been a better time to take that independence and make it permanent.