Remote work, especially in IT, could become a permanent trend

Many companies have already figured out how to effectively communicate and manage communication among employees (who may not want to go back to an office).

The coronavirus could make remote work the norm, what businesses need to know
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Many of us chuckled over the now famous video of the BBC interview with a professor whose children wandered into his remote office a couple of years back. Expect scenes like this to become more commonplace with experts saying remote work may continue long after the need to stay at home subsides.

According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 29% of workers have the ability to work from home on an average day. That number fell to 20.6% for wage and salaried workers. These figures will undoubtedly rise in the weeks and months ahead.

A shortage of workers prompted many employers to offer the option to work remotely part time or a couple of days a week and this has long been a desirable perk to attract workers. Now, it may become the norm, especially in IT, which has the experience and the wherewithal to continue working remotely.

IT is particularly well-suited for working remotely

Thanks to the off-shoring of technical resources and distributed team structures a decade ago, working remotely has been a long trend in IT, observed Art Zeile, CEO of DHI Group, the parent company of IT talent firm Dice.

This trend "allowed companies to learn how to be effective in managing communication between disparate employees," Zeile said. "We have seen that most technologists are constantly balancing the need to stay connected with their teammates to work out interdependencies while creating enough personal 'flow' time to code and problem-solve."

Dice's 2020 Salary Report revealed that a large majority of technologists (93%) want to work remotely at least some of the time. However, despite that overwhelming desire, only 60% percent of respondents said they had the opportunity to actually work from home at the start of the year, Dice said. 

Given that desire, employers will likely see the same level of productivity if workers opt not to go back to an office, Zeile added.

"From a lifestyle perspective, there is no question that most technologists prefer a partial, if not total work-from-home option. I believe that in the weeks to come, most companies will reach an equivalent degree of productivity from their teams in work-from-home mode and will be more open to operating this way in the future, past the coronavirus."

SEE: Twitter mandates all employees work from home during coronavirus pandemic (TechRepublic)

Another reason workers may choose to continue working remotely is the tight housing market in several big tech hubs, said Tim Herbert, executive vice president for research and market intelligence at CompTIA. Echoing Zeile, he said employees place a premium on quality of life and studies have shown advanced technologies have made working remotely more doable today.

"We have more affordable remote work devices—laptops are far more affordable and platforms facilitating collaboration," Herbert said.

Right now, the two most widely used collaboration platforms among tech workers are Slack and Google Hangouts, said Sarah Doughty, director of recruitment at technology hiring firm TalentLab. "Most of the tech employers are using Slack in some form either for workflows or employee communications," she said. "Google Hangouts is still the most popular platform, particularly for small to mid-sized companies that haven't seen a need to invest in a paid platform like WebEx."

Herbert believes we will "see a permanent increase in remote work," which will also correlate with a person's age. "Previously, Gen X, Gen Y, and younger demographics were more receptive to more working from home compared to baby boomers who were more focused on some level of office time," across all industries, he said.

This was because older workers have grown up believing they are still judged by their office time and an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. In contrast, younger generations have always known online collaboration and sharing and making friends remotely, so this may be less of an issue for them, Herbert said.

"I do expect the trend … to continue," he said. "If you think about a smooth curve, you could envision the spike due to the coronavirus. I can't say how big it will get, but I think it will push some organizations to permanently change. For others, it will be a long process; not something they will change overnight," because there are considerations like office buildings they own or lease.

Considerations for permanent remote work

While companies should have general liability insurance, remote work means ensuring a company's protection of coverage extends into activity at the home, "which under most insurance [plans] may be considered outside the scope of employment,'' said Rob Scott, managing partner at Scott & Scott LLP, in Southlake, TX.

"It's relatively easy to understand when someone's at work if something goes wrong—that's what insurance is for—but if someone's at home and something goes wrong, is that something the responsibility of the company…or would it trigger a homeowner's policy?" Scott said. 

Remote work creates "unique risks," he added, and "it would be appropriate for companies to do a review of their risk management in light of changes like sending workers home."

Remote work for technology professionals also requires a thoughtful set of decisions around how to reroute inbound calls, particularly if groups facilitate call queues, and how to facilitate the right home/work environment to maximize productivity, Zeile noted.

"Screen size and internet connectivity are key factors for success,'' he said. "We believe that we will see more and more companies embarking on this path, and that we will all collectively be experimenting on better ways to work together more efficiently remotely."

Working remotely on a permanent basis assumes workers have an environment that lends itself to home work, Herbert said. "That brings up really thorny societal questions—do we then have to be concerned about what type of inequality that could result from this? Will some workers be disadvantaged because they're not in areas with robust broadband? So there are big questions over the next decade or two that we'll have to address."

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