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Will remote work become the new normal? Reflections and resources in a covid-19 world

Craig Zelizer

March 25, 2020

It seems like everyone is talking about remote work these days. While the trend has been growing steadily in the past few years, in the past month with the covid19 outbreak on all of of my social media channels including Linkedin, Twitter, Medium and Facebook I am seeing a dramatic increase in content on the topic.  In a Google search I conducted using "Remote Work"  over 2 billion results were displayed.

Even more interesting using Google Trends,  data shows searches for remote work have radically grown. For example,  several days ago Zoom was the most popular search term with over 2 million in the US alone. The company has rapidly become the go-to video conference tool for organizations and individuals around the world (the PCDN team are huge fans of the product and we use it on an almost daily basis  with clients clients and partners).

This post highlights some of the key benefits of adopting remote work at the individual, organizational and societal levels. I do want to stress that while I am a huge fan of remote work (and PCDN for a long time has been remote centered), I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture. There are many key practical and ethical challenges in moving towards an increasingly remote friendly world of work.  These include the key fact that many people around the world still don’t have any or reliable access to the Internet (the digital divide remains huge), that many people are in based in the gig economy and don't have full-time employment or a formal employer, that remote work can actually mean more work hours if one doesn't balance work/life effectively,  and that many positions cannot currently be done remotely. Furthermore, to date much of remote work has been limited to more elites in the Global North and to a lesser degree in the Global South. The increasing prevalence of remote work may further increase the global remote digital divide or there is a chance the growth in remote approaches can help spur economic growth as well as increased equality  (we need a lot more data on this). These key challenges will be explored more in future posts but I want to ensure they are acknowledged here.

Six Key Benefits to Remote Work


1) Time Saved – The traditional model of employers in diverse sectors from higher education, to tech companies, to government agencies has been requiring employees to be present during a set of standard office hours (usually numbering between 32 and 40 hours a week).  Most people don’t live within walking distance of their workplaces meaning many are forced to commute for long and frustrating periods on a daily basis.

Photo by Larry James Baylas on Unsplash

Recent research from the Trade Union Congress in the UK found that the average UK worker who has to commute spends on average 221 hours commuting. In my opinion this is insane. If the average person spends 40 years in the work-force, this means an individual can easily spend one year or more of his/her life commuting.

Imagine what you can do with an extra week per year every year? The possibilities are endless such as more time with family and friends, exercise (and better health), learning new skills, playing, resting, building community, watching Netflix and service to one's community.

I can speak from my own personal experience. While I’ve been very fortunate not to have many jobs that require me to go into the office everyday, I have had to spend a substantial amount of time in offices in my career.  I will admit though I am a bit of a office rebel and have been fortunate to shape a career where I've been able to have flexible and often remote friendly work arrangements. In my previous role as a full-time professor at Georgetown University for a decade (until I quit to focus on growing PCDN) I usually went into the office 3-4 times a week (not during breaks or summertime). My commute consisted of the following:

  • Walk to bus stop
  • Wait for bus
  • Get to Metro
  • Wait for Metro
  • Get on Metro (sometimes it was too crowded and I had to wait for another 10-15 minutes)
  • Get off Metro
  • Take (wait) for bus,  or bike (I did use bikeshare) or walk to the office
  • And then repeat at the end of the day

Total Commute time each way usually one hour, which equated to two hours or more a day of my life. While I did often read a book, listen to a podcast (make sure to check out the Social Change Career Podcast) , use my smartphone, plan for class, often the transport was so crowded it was hard to do anything productive.

Since I jumped into PCDN my full-time work my commute has thankfully largely ended. These days I usually work 2-3 days from home and 2-3 in our coworking space at Impact Hub Medellin.

My commute now is follows:

  • 2-3 days a week 30 seconds a day from our bedroom to the living room when working at home.
  • The days I go to Impact Hub a 15 minute walk each way or a 7 minute taxi ride.

I realize this is a real privilege to have this freedom and I wish all people working around the world would be in the place to have flexible work at least part of the time.

This extra time has allowed me to greatly increase my quality of life, my relationships, my health and reduce work  stress.

2) Money Saved

Remote work allows for strong financial benefits for both the individual worker and employers. At the individual level for the average worker  in the US the annual savings can easily range from $2000 to $5000 for people who can work at home.

The money saved comes from many factors including not having to pay for commuting, fancy work clothes, dry cleaning, less eating lunch and snacks out.

For example, when I worked at Georgetown University, I easily spent $150 a month on commuting, plus I did frequently spend money on lunch, coffee, snacks, occasional dry-cleaning and other expenses. Switching to more flexible work, allows me to eat most of my meals at home, I have little or no commuting costs, I can dress more casually and there a host of other financial benefits.

There are also a fair number of professionals who are digital nomad remote workers. Some are freelancers and others have stable remote friendly jobs. A number have no permanent address and instead rotate around the world spending a few weeks or months wherever they want as long as they have strong Internet access, often working from home and coworking spaces.  Obviously with covid19 this movement has largely had a temporary interruption but it likely to continue in the future. I do have one friend who was spending a lot of money on rent in a major US city and gave  up the apartment to do her work around the globe. She was able to live in many countries, get her work down and have amazing experiences. Of course there are many critiques of digital nomadism as well. The topic will be explored more in a future post.

For employers there are significant savings as well, although I was surprised I couldn't find much reliable data on this.  According to the Global Workplace Analytics Report employers in the US can save an average of $11,000 annually per employee that works half-time remotely or at home.

3) Environmental Impact

Given the existential climate challenge facing the world (not to mention the current COVID19 pandemic), it seems ridiculous to have hundreds of millions of people daily  contributing directly to making the crises worse by commuting.

According to the EPA in the US “A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.” While many people do use public transport around the world, which still has a carbon footprint   too many people use their personal vehicles. I am pleased to say since moving to Colombia we no longer have a car. While we lived in the US we thankfully only had one vehicle which was a hybrid, since we were able to use public transport for commuting purposes.

Imagine if a sizeable number of trips in personal cars that were for commuting to/from work were ended.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

4) Get More Work Done & Be Happier

Research does show that remote work often leads to much higher levels of productivity. In the US alone the average office worker can be interrupted  up to 11 times an hour. Given that it is becoming increasingly difficult to focus and get things done in an overconnected world, frequent interruptions often make it more difficult to get the long-term important works goals accomplished. In a two year remote work study conducted by faculty at  Stanford University the benefits of included a 13% increase in performance as well as much greater retention of employees.

There is also very strong research to show that people who don’t have to commute long-distances, can work from home, or can walk/bike to work report being much happier.  I can vouch from personal experience having the freedom to work from home and/or walk to our co-working space makes a huge positive difference.

5) Opportunity is Equally Distributed – Employers that are fully remote (there are still not that many) can hire the best talent from anywhere in the world. In an age in which a sizeable portion of the world is online (of course there is still a huge digital divide), why should organizations be limited to hiring only people in their immediate geographic vicinity? For some positions such as security sensitive jobs, manufacturing, direct social services, having local staff may always be the norm. But for many opportunities work can be performed as long as the candidate has the relevant skills, training and a strong Internet connection. Hiring the best talent, regardless of location, can build much more inclusive workplaces that are built to thrive in an increasingly connected world.

There are challenges that are important to acknowledge in remote hiring such as different laws and tax policies, managing teams, cultural differences, managing teams across time zones and more. But this can be overcome and there is an growing ecosystem of organizations that offering services to help organizations do this well. A few key companies in this space including FirstBase, and  remote.co. 

There are also some great examples of remote first companies, although almost all are in the tech space. A few examples include Basecamp (a great project management & communication tool), Automattic (the company behind wordpress.com), and Doist (produces a number key productivity and team communication products). Most of the tech remote friendly positions are for developers (coders), project or product managers, sales and marketing, content generation and community management (a useful list of remote first companies is on GitHub). In the social impact and social change sectors unfortunately there not as many  organizations that are 100% remote (if you know of or work for one feel free to drop me a line and will start putting together a list). There are some out there and I do know of many people who've been able to arrange on an individual basis remote work options at large and medium sized organizations.

With the Covid19 outbreak  almost all social impact organizations are now forced to experiment with remote friendly arrangements. It will be interesting to see what happens when the virus passes (hopefully soon) and employers will decide how the future of their operations will be.  

6) Design for People first – So much of how our cities around the world have been built is to accommodate cars first and  people second. If the world can switch to a people first approach cities can be transformed to help foster positive social interaction, put pedestrians and bikes at the center of transport, which has tremendous positive impacts. Unfortunately, in the US alone there are 500 million parking spaces which is crazy and most cars are parked for 80% of the time. If people didn't have to commute as a requirement for many positions this could help led a radically positive change in urban development.

Imagine a world where parking garages are non-existent, pedestrian boulevards and bike paths abound. What a wonderful word it would be.

Photo by ray rui on Unsplash

Above I highlighted some key arguments in favor of moving towards an increasingly remote friendly wold of work. It would be great  to hear your comments, favorite data points and of course your critiques. As highlighted also stay tuned for future posts on the topics, including some of the key critiques of a remote work world.

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