The COVID-19 pandemic will force companies to mandate remote work. This may be one of the greatest improvements to the American workforce since the invention of the telephone.

When you break a bone, it heals to become stronger. The coronavirus is shattering the skeleton of the remote work policies. As each new case springs up more companies are mandating their employees to work from home. Major events from the entire NBA season to SXSW have been canceled. Countries are closing borders and banning international flights. Experts are saying this will last for months. The good news is this will force obdurate companies to finally embrace technology and improve remote work policies. 

After a crisis, we learn. “Employees must wash hands” signs were created after Typhoid Mary infected restaurants. The Triangle Shirt Fire led to exterior doors opening outwards. Seat belts, pill bottles with child safety caps, surge protectors– all of these were innovations in response to a crisis. The coronavirus pandemic will change how we work.  

Growing Pains

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 26 million Americans work remotely at least part-time, that’s around 16% of the workforce. This isn’t some millennial excuse to do work in your pajamas while Netflix plays in the background. Those employees should be fired. It takes effort to effectively work remotely. The Wi-Fi will be an issue, proper lighting, and microphone setups are essential for the remote worker. But it’s a small price to pay for the flexibility of work. 

It’s wrong to assume just because tech exists that companies are leveraging it. Many workers aren’t even permitted to work remotely. According to Owl Labs, 44% of businesses don’t allow remote work. What businesses will see, especially the ones reluctant to change, is that technology to make this workforce shift happen is ready for use. Software from Slack to Asana ensures communication and workflow management is seamless. Affordable hardware can allow small businesses to use high-quality video conferencing from anywhere in the world. Services like Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts will become more common by the day. As more businesses mandate remote work, they’ll be forced to use these tools. 

The American Psychological Association found flexible remote work improves employee morale, creativity, and productivity. If more companies embrace these policies, it will make life easier for a large part of the workforce. Maternity and paternity leave can become easier. This also opens the doors for every company to become global. When companies see how painless it is to work remotely with their employees, they may expand that to hire full-time remote workers on another hemisphere. Automattic Inc., the company that invented WordPress, has an entirely remote workforce. This opens up companies to different cultures and allows them to enter new markets.

The Quality Of Work Will Rise

Working remotely is stigmatized. Most managers think their employees are making margaritas and watching the Golf Channel as they glance at emails. The Harvard Business Review argues the opposite, stating that productivity rises with remote work. They noticed worker output increased by 4.4% when working remotely– an estimated $1.3 billion annual value add to the U.S. economy. 

There will be employees who take advantage of the policy. However, the ones who are serious about their work will notice the time saved from commuting and office nonsense as a godsend. The average American commute time is roughly 35 minutes a day. Extrapolate that annually and you’ll find it adds up to 152 hours of commuting or 19 full workdays. Deadtime. Just taking half of that time and reinvesting it back into the company will increase productivity overall.

The Darkside Of Remote Work

There’s a flipside to this coin. Once companies embrace working remotely it’s likely to be abused. There have to be clear guidelines to protect employees from overwork. Too many Americans already are. Ever since Blackberry phones hit the market, email addiction spread like a virus. If companies want this to work, they must allow for employee input on remote work policies. 

The current system is broken. Email has become the new assembly line. Staying late at the office just waiting for work is a cruel and unusual practice by most companies. As the coronavirus forces more companies to mandate remote work policies it’ll change things. It’s our responsibility to ensure it changes work for the better. Boundaries must be set. Right now, we’re at the starting line of creating a happier and more productive workforce. We can’t squander the opportunity. After all, isn’t that what we all want?