I recently read about an interesting trend that has gained steam in the U.S. during the COVID pandemic - the rise of “Zoom towns.” The term is a take on “boom towns” – those population centers that sprung up as a result of the new economic opportunities brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Zoom towns are smaller towns and cities that are rapidly growing as a result of the remote work opportunities brought about by the pandemic.
There is no doubt that “office work” is going through a transformative period in our country, and in the world at large. Many companies are embracing remote work, which is introducing exciting possibilities for employees and employers alike. Let’s take a look at some of the opportunities for both organizations and employees that can stem from making the transition to permanent remote work.
Opportunities for Employees
More Job Choices. Anyone who has looked for a new job in recent decades is likely familiar with the drill. Sign up for a job search website and enter your qualifications, salary requirements, and commuting range. Presto – your list of potential job opportunities appears! But what if you could skip that last step and not be limited by jobs within commuting distance of your home? Imagine the possibility of searching for a job anywhere…
Remote work provides job seekers with the opportunity to assess a job based on how well their skills fit the position, the salary and benefits the employer offers, company culture, and other personal requirements that are highly valued by the individual. By removing geographic limitations, employees are empowered to make career choices that aren’t dictated by the location of the office. Imagine the possibilities!
More Living Choices. A Gallup poll indicated that in the fall of 2021, 41% of white-collar employees were working from home exclusively. While this percentage could shrink as we progress through – and out of – the pandemic, a growing number of companies are choosing to become fully remote compared to pre-pandemic levels. This truly is a seismic shift in the way work has been done for generations. This transformation is providing employees with tremendous personal freedom, arguably more so than at any point in history.
Which would you prefer?
A community preference survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors found that Americans have reported a reduced need to reside near highways, public transit, or their place of work since the onset of the pandemic. The findings further revealed that Americans are increasingly seeking to live in walkable communities. Other studies have found the rise of “amenity migration” spurred by newly remote employees relocating to areas that provide easy access to outdoor spaces and recreational opportunities. These trends help explain the genesis of Zoom towns and why locations outside of major metropolitan areas are experiencing a rebirth.
The transition to permanent remote work has created the opportunity for employees to build work around their lives rather than building their lives around their work. Major life moves are made possible - getting a head start on a retirement destination, moving closer to family, or relocating to an area with a more affordable cost of living. How liberating!
Opportunities for Employers
Many organizations were thrust into telework during the pandemic with little knowledge of how to maintain communications, manage employees, and remain productive in a remote environment. But by this point, many innovative companies have put the necessary technologies, policies, and procedures in place to keep up with the changing landscape. I’ve already mentioned some of the possibilities remote work presents for employees. Let’s explore some of the opportunities remote work presents for employers.
Expanded Talent Pool. Organizations that operate remotely are no longer constrained by geographic boundaries in recruitment and hiring. Let’s face it - the most qualified candidate for a position may not always be located within commuting range. Offering permanent remote work opens up the talent pool, which is especially important in the current labor market. Positions are frequently left unfilled because of the wide range of employment options for prospective employees. With employees calling the shots in today’s job market, companies that offer remote work are more likely to fill those positions.
Employee Retention. Many organizations are currently facing risks associated with not having a sufficient number of qualified employees to perform the work, making it critical to retain seasoned talent. As a growing number of companies offer remote work, they are more likely to hold onto qualified employees, providing remote companies a competitive edge in the labor market.
Cost Savings. The cost of purchasing or renting and maintaining corporate real estate is significant. Transitioning to a fully remote environment allows businesses to shed this enormous overhead expense. Furthermore, organizations that go fully remote have the option to provide salaries that reflect cost of living adjustments based on the location of the employee. For instance, a NYC law firm is no longer strictly bound to compensating its staff with NYC salaries, which could result in sizeable savings.
Some companies have chosen to permit remote work but haven’t gone “all in” by embracing full-time telework for all employees. These companies may achieve cost savings by reducing their office space and transitioning to a hybrid office, where employees spend part of their time working in the office and part of their time working remotely. Employees living in “Zoom towns” with close enough proximity to the office may find this a workable solution as they only need to trek into the office for a limited number of days.
Forward Looking. Many companies have spent tremendous resources developing, scrapping, and redeveloping plans for a return to the office during the pandemic. The ever-changing nature of the pandemic has required constant pivoting on decisions about reopening offices and developing protocols for a safe return. Companies that have transitioned to permanent remote work can focus on getting the work done and building a healthy remote culture rather than being reactive to an unpredictable and changing threat.
I frequently hear a few reasons why companies don’t fully embrace a remote environment. Let’s take a look.
Productivity. The first is that employee productivity suffers. In response, I would offer that most companies have tested remote work in some form or another since the onset of the pandemic and have enough hard data to assess employee productivity. I urge employers to compare performance metrics related to productivity during periods where employees were working in the office and remotely and see what the data reveal.
Resistance to Change. Some organizations have made the case against permanent remote work stating that the pandemic won’t last forever and a return to normal is on the horizon. While this could be true, and I hope it is, the pandemic has highlighted that a new normal could actually be a better normal. After all, just because working in an office is the way it’s been done for generations doesn’t mean that’s the best way moving forward.
Company Culture. Leadership in some organizations have also resisted shifting to permanent remote work because they believe it’s difficult to maintain a vibrant company culture without in-person interactions among employees. I’ve worked remotely for the past 18 years, and while my company does gather in person for monthly meetings and periodic social events, we have been able to maintain a vibrant company culture over the years while working primarily from home. Some strategies for maintaining a vibrant company culture in a virtual environment that have worked for our company include:
- Schedule regular check-ins with managers to promote frequent feedback and to provide employees the opportunity to discuss whatever is on their minds
- Meet as a full company and as teams on a regular basis and allow time before or after meetings for “water cooler” chatting
- Request input from employees about their work preferences - online polls are a great tool for this
- Pair up new employees with a mentor to help them acclimate to the role and virtual culture
- Clearly define expected behaviors – business hours, communication protocols, remote work attire, to name a few
One thing is becoming increasingly clear - remote work has staying power. While there have certainly been many negative impacts of the pandemic, there are exciting possibilities that stem from changing the way work can be performed. Will you and your organization seize the opportunities that lie ahead?