Checking In on the Remote Revolution

As I type these words, we’re onwards of 4 years from the initial reports of a novel coronavirus showing up somewhere in China, and therefore about 3 years from when the first vaccines were approved for mass inoculation. That development itself was the beginning of a 2-year return to normalcy, at least, to some facsimile of pre-COVID work and life. The virus still seems to surge this time of the year, but we’ve now gone through multiple winters with a more muted severity that it has faded into the background; the common predictions of SARS-CoV-2 gradually becoming endemic have been proven correct.

Back then, though, it was fashionable and fun to predict all the other things that would change with such a black swan event. Amid the maelstrom, I mused about COVID as an accelerant, the advent of remote work, and the rise and fall of pandemic-era companies. With a bit more distance and perspective now, it seems like COVID has acted more like a rubber band: it stretched the world in one extreme direction, then the world reacted by snapping back in the opposite direction, and we’re only now reverting to a trajectory matching the extrapolation from the before times.

In particular, remote work has hit a wall that it isn’t able to scale. For a while, it seemed like the additional constraint of social distancing would be a forcing function to innovate on how to work. Everyone1 learned how to handle prolonged Zoom meetings. People found room in their homes for ad hoc home offices. Newly founded startups built apps to facilitate the social connectivity naturally arising from physical gatherings in virtual spaces.

But it didn’t stick. Video chats got incrementally better, but didn’t fundamentally change how we communicate and remain a subpar alternative to in-person conversations. VR has a unique opportunity to establish presence and emulate real-world dynamics, but it’s hampered by hardware that isn’t quite there yet—which also means that it doesn’t have the critical mass to accumulate network effects. Last year, once it felt safe to resume physical gatherings, companies issued a slew of return-to-office (RTO) mandates, precisely following that rubber-banding effect of overcorrecting prior behaviors.

A major cohort of employees have pushed back against mandatory RTO, having tasted the flexibility and convenience of staying at home. The productivity arguments on both sides feature mixed research—it’s at best inconclusive on whether working from home is better or worse for increasing firm efficiency. Other variables like employee happiness and office costs are positively impacted, readily confirming common sense.

Which brings us to 2024. After a year of very much pushing for not remote work, we’re landing on a hybrid model: employees are still expected to head into the office, but the frequency and cadence adjust to something less than 5 days a week. This compromise, though, brings about a couple of second-order effects:

  • Restaurants and commercial activity around offices are still only making a fraction of what they were pre-pandemic; some businesses cannot survive, others have to cut back hours or reduce service
  • Office spaces end up with lower utilization rates, and potentially lower upkeep costs, but now with more days when buildings are near-empty
  • There is more coordination around schedules and calendars, to take advantage of days when folks are available in-person
  • More non-work errands and activities are now done on Mondays and Fridays to take advantage of the most common work-from-home (WFH) days

The arbitrary rules and inconsistencies between companies is a feature; we’re all trying to figure this out and there are no established norms for blending RTO and WFH. It does feel messy, though, and I’d be surprised if this is the arrangement that we stick with in the long run; my guess is that this is a period of exploration and trial-and-error, and we converge on a more standardized set of remote work expectations in the coming couple of years.

  1. And adoption was truly broad; my preschooler at the time figured it out along with technically impaired executives.

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