What the rise of remote work says about our future

The only constant in the modern workplace is change. Shifts in technology, culture, and the economy have always changed how we work, where we work, and what we do at work. But what happens when change accelerates?

ARTICLE | 6m read
October 1, 2020

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We imagine evolution happening slowly over decades—but in the midst of a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, the modern workplace has radically changed in a matter of months. We are now living through a work revolution centered on the rise of the remote worker. But while the coronavirus pandemic has rapidly changed the modern workplace, it is only one chapter in the story of how technology, culture, and the economy have elevated remote work. As executives prioritize healthy relationships between their remote workforce and workplace technology, it’s important to examine the connections between remote work and employee digital wellness through changing workspaces, advancing technology, and evolving HR departments.

How the traditional office space evolved toward telecommuting

To visualize how the modern workplace has evolved toward remote working, look at how work spaces have changed and impacted employee culture. The 20th century began with factory floors dominated by hundreds of employees performing similar tasks, then transitioned to midcentury office layouts with many single-occupant workspaces. These action offices evolved into open-office spaces, led by tech companies like Google and Slack that wanted to encourage a culture of face-to-face collaboration. In each workplace design, you can see how they were designed for specific goals: efficiency for the factory, creative focus for the traditional office setting, and teamwork for the open floor plan.

WE SAW HERMAN MILLER CREATE WHAT IS KNOWN AS THE ACTION OFFICE. IT WAS ABOUT CREATING AN INDIVIDUAL WORKSPACE FOR PEOPLE THAT REALLY WAS SUPPORTIVE OF THEM AND ENABLED THEIR OWN BEST INDIVIDUAL CREATIVE WORK.

Jodi Williams
Senior Associate VP Workplace Strategy & Change Management
CallisonRTKL

But as these changes impacted employee culture, individual workers began to demand more autonomy to prioritize their digital wellness. Employees wanted to choose their work arrangements: the times of day when they worked, the technology they used for work, and the physical environment where work got done. This desire for choice was a huge driver of the rise of the remote worker—what better way to assert choice over one’s work environment than telecommuting from home? Remote workers would avoid long commutes and distracting coworking conversations in favor of a curated home office. This improved the digital wellness of remote employees by maximizing their work-life balance and reducing stress. It’s easy to see why Gallup found 54 percent of office workers say they would leave their current job for a position that offers flexible work time.

How advancing technology enabled remote workers to thrive

Employee desire for autonomy drove the rise of the remote worker—but technological breakthroughs made this change possible. The 1980s saw PCs become a must-have tool for knowledge workers and the 21st century added broadband internet connectivity to enable collaboration across geographic locations. However, the technology most enabled the current state of remote work were mobile devices that freed employees from traditional office space. Equipped with smartphones, tablets, and laptops, workers could have a productive workday at home, in a coffee shop, or while traveling.

WE NO LONGER HAD TO ONLY BE IN THE OFFICE. TECHNOLOGY ENABLED THE RISE OF THE REMOTE WORKER.

Natalia Peart, Ph.D
Psychologist & Career Reinvention Expert 

54%

of office workers say they would leave their current job for a position that offers flexible work time.

Advancing technology continues to improve employee engagement and digital wellness today. Because of more resilient WANs and other networking solutions, remote workers with slower internet connections can still have reliable access to video conferencing applications like Zoom. Intelligent workspaces are leveraging machine learning to better understand employee work habits and automate routine, boring tasks in real time. And content collaboration platforms have added automated workflows to ensure remote teams can effectively share feedback no matter where team members are located. The result is a more productive and healthier workforce with less frustration and stress. Small wonder that The Economist Intelligence Unit reports 37% of c-suite and rank-and-file employees said well-implemented workplace technology positively impacted their employee experience.

37%

of c-suite and rank-and-file employees said well-implemented workplace technology positively impacted their employee experience.

How HR’s rise created a more inclusive workplace

As organizations choose technology to support their culture, HR plays a major role in creating an inclusive workplace. This has included everything from leading diversity-focused recruitment efforts to choosing technology that empowers the nearly 20 percent of workers with a disability. But over the last year, as the disruption of COVID-19 has sent millions to work from home for the first time, the role of HR has become crucial for maintaining digital wellness and job satisfaction among all employees.

THIS IS THE TIME WHEN YOU NEED TO BE RETHINK THE EQUATION. BREAKDOWNS ARE THE BEST TIMES TO THINK THROUGH BREAKTHROUGHS.

Raghu Krishnamoorthy
Educator, former Chief Human Resources Officer
GE 

The Harvard Business Review describes HR’s leadership role in promoting digital wellness as follows: “For HR professionals, this means the future of work will include developing a stronger focus and a more holistic view of employee wellbeing.” This goes beyond conventional office perks like healthy snacks and onsite gyms. Instead, HR leaders are finding new ways to encourage mindfulness and prevent burnout among their full-time remote workforce. This includes adopting remote work policy that increases employee choice over their schedule and work technology, as well as scheduling white space time for remote employees to meditate or think creatively during the workday. HR teams are also strategically deploying AI technology that can automate simple tasks like arranging meetings or approving expense reports.

Remote work on the rise is the new evolution of the workplace

The future of work is always changing and today’s rise of the remote worker is an exciting new chapter. As our workplaces continue to evolve toward enabling digital wellness, the more that executives can empower remote employees with the choice and work options they need to do their best work with less stress, the more their organizations will lead the way.

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