A year of COVID taught us all how to work remotely

About a year ago, my employer told us all to work from home till further notice due to the COVID19 pandemic.

Most, if not all, white-collar work can be done remotely without being present in any single specific location. The tools to do so have been around for years. In particular, those of us in the tech industry can efficiently work from home full time.

The barriers to full-time telecommuting had more to do with management and team dynamics than telecommuting’s technological aspects.

Working from home isn’t new to me. Having telecommuted full-time for five years, I know what it is like. In March 2020, when COVID lockdowns started, my hope was that they would force the companies to rethink their attitudes to telecommuting.

Those of us working in software, in particular, know that our daily interactions involve people in the US, India, Brazil, Spain, and other parts of the world. In many cases, only a fraction of the team is physically in the same geographical location — much less the same time zone.

Much as I like to think of myself as an introverted genius, I am actually a social butterfly in reality. I readily acknowledge that in-person bonding with colleagues is an essential aspect of a positive work environment.

My ideal approach would be some sort of a hybrid, giving me the flexibility to decide whether to be in the office today or not. An arrangement where I could be in the office 2-3 times a week for in-person meetings with colleagues while telecommuting the rest of the time would be ideal.

Telecommuting in and of itself isn’t the end — it is the means to a more flexible work arrangement. In a sign of changing attitudes in the enterprise world, Gizmodo is reporting that Salesforce would “allow its employees more freedom in choosing how to structure their work lives going forward.”:

“In our always-on, always-connected world, it no longer makes sense to expect employees to work an eight-hour shift and do their jobs successfully,” Hyder adds. “Whether you have a global team to manage across time zones, a project-based role that is busier or slower depending on the season, or simply have to balance personal and professional obligations throughout the day, workers need flexibility to be successful.”

[ … ]

Under the flex plan, employees would come into the office an average of one to three days per week for “team collaboration, customer meetings, and presentations.” Fully remote would be the situation for employees who only stopped by the office rarely — say, for work-related events — and office-based employees would be based in the office four to five days per week, and would comprise “the smallest population of our workforce,” according to Hyder.

The plan laid out by Salesforce is looking increasingly likely to become the norm for companies eager to save money by downsizing their existing office spaces, create attractive avenues for increased work-life balance and hire new employees based outside of crowded coastal hub cities. More importantly, though, it’s a step in the right direction in terms of allowing workers to have more of a say in choosing the shape work will take up in their lives.

There are many societal benefits to telecommuting as well. Telecommuters spend more money locally, allowing vibrant suburban business downtowns to flourish. With fewer cars on the roads and at staggered schedules, there is less traffic, less wear on the infrastructure, and less impact on the environment. Fewer people in confined, poorly ventilated office spaces means diminished spread of even the more mundane diseases like seasonal cold and flu.

My hope is that Salesforce’s announcement is a sign of positive things to come.