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Future of remote work will be heavily influenced by COVID-19

COVID-19 has made working from home a reality for many workers, but what is the future of remote work? Will current policies persist, or will it be back to business as usual?

Work-from-home technology has proven itself in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, experts said, erasing some of the productivity worries that held up remote working. It has, by necessity, spurred organizations to enact remote-work policies and invest in the tech needed to enable them.

Yet, with talk of reopening the economy and easing social distancing restrictions, analysts said the lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic won't completely transform a company's operations to accommodate a complete work-from-home shift. Instead, the future of remote work will likely be a mix of in-office and at-home days.

Dion HinchcliffeDion Hinchcliffe

"Coronavirus has been very successful in realizing sudden and dramatic changes in both the digital workplace and employee experience," said Dion Hinchcliffe, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research in Cupertino, Calif. "While some of these changes will fade -- most likely the clunkier tech and modes of remote work like video calls -- the indications I'm seeing are that many of the shifts will stay."

Overcoming cultural resistance

The technology to enable working from home has been present for some time, Forrester Research analyst Andrew Hewitt said, but cultural expectations created a hurdle for implementation.

Andrew HewittAndrew Hewitt

"The fundamental barrier has been trust in the employee to be productive," he said. "I think that's going to be hurdled -- people who work from home often report themselves as being more productive."

The COVID-19 pandemic, said Enterprise Strategy Group senior analyst Mark Bowker, has proven both that employees can work from home, and that needed applications can be delivered to them securely.

Hinchcliffe said several factors prove that the work-at-home model is a viable one.

"Capable new infrastructure for working remotely, upgrades to tools better adapted to working from afar, improvements in workers' skills and changes in culture around the effectiveness of the approach will lead to greater use of the model, even after we can go back to the physical office," he said.

Radical change unlikely

Hewitt said he believed many organizations would resume traditional office-based working as the pandemic fades. He said, per Forrester research, only about 6% of information workers across the globe worked remotely all the time prior to COVID-19.

"I think we'll see that number go up a bit [after the pandemic]," he said, noting that some employers might offer workers leeway in returning to the office. "I don't think there will be a complete transformation."

I don't think there will be a complete transformation.
Andrew HewittAnalyst, Forrester Research

Although full-time remote work is unlikely to become the dominant model, Hewitt said, the pandemic may lead to other changes in employee behavior. For example, people seeking new jobs may make their potential employer's flexibility in responding to extreme situations -- using the pandemic as an example -- a greater priority when determining whether to accept a job offer.

Bowker said he expected employees would have the option to work from home at times, as opposed to a wholesale shift to full-time remote work.

Mark BowkerMark Bowker

"Instead of being in the office five days a week, maybe they're in four days a week," he said. "I think they're going to have some flexibility in their work schedule."

Even this modest change, Bowker said, might have a significant ripple effect. For example, it could lead to organizations consolidating office space.

"I do not expect massive office buildings in New York City, for example, to shut down due to [that possible consolidation]," he said. "But I can imagine where someone may choose half a floor instead of a full floor in an office building."

Hinchcliffe said almost everyone he's talked to in IT expected the remote-work shift to have at least some kind of lasting effect, although the degree is uncertain.

Reassessing remote work tech

Analysts said the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the utility of cloud-based, scalable products to ensure business continuity, and expect that the technology would be used to lay the groundwork for the future of remote work.

Bowker said he expected cloud-service providers, such as those delivering virtual desktops and desktops as a service, would see more business as COVID restrictions fade.

"[Those providers are] going to be able to take their solutions and deliver an employee's workspace from the cloud to that end user," he said. "Now, IT has removed the burden of maintaining the infrastructure, they've been able to consolidate a lot of that management … inside the data center and they're able to deliver it securely."

Conversely, Hewitt said, companies may reconsider their VPN use in their future continuity plans. He noted that VPNs have been under significant strain, with possibly the entirety of a company's workforce attempting to connect to a company's network at the same time.

"I think this could spur a lot of people toward cloud-based productivity apps and away from legacy Windows apps that are super hard to deliver beyond a firewall," he said.

Beyond tech, Hewitt said, the pandemic could lead to a broader rethinking of what business continuity means and how to achieve it.

"The other piece of this is that companies are learning that people are part of the business continuity plan," he said.

Bowker said, from a business process perspective, he expected leaders to be more amenable to the idea that employees do not necessarily have to be in the office to get work done.

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